How Atlantic Philanthropies Plans To Keep Making Change After It Shuts Down
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The foundation will have given away more than $8 billion when it shutters in 2020. Now as it spends its last millions, Atlantic is innovating better ways to leave a lasting impact.
By Ben Paynter
When it was founded in 1982, the Atlantic Philanthropies, a limited life foundation focusing on social change, became a pioneer of the giving while living movement. The group adheres to the charitable philosophy that to do the most good, major grant makers shouldn’t worry about how to reinvest their funds to sustain themselves in perpetuity. Instead, they should plan to spend it all to make change within the current generation.
By the time it shutters in 2020, Atlantic will have given away more than $8 billion to various causes, often in the form of big bets—awards over $10 million. That basic concept goes like this: If you find the right strategy, you can fund your own tipping point. Other major philanthropists like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have launched their own radical gambles on a similar principle.
But Atlantic is still innovating. In December, the group will announce their final distribution plan for how the rest of their funds will be spent. That makes the group a pioneer in another way: “It really will be the biggest fund ever to spend itself out of existence,” says William Foster, a partner at Bridgespan. (Full disclosure: Atlantic is also funding Fast Company‘s philanthropy coverage.)
Foster should know. In October, he coauthored a report tracking how well Atlantic’s big bets had paid off. In industry parlance, the group must now create a “spend down” model for how to close up shop without leaving partners in the lurch. For all of their success, that’s one of several areas that Bridgespan identified as a shortcoming. Their report noted that the group sometimes invested heavily, but for too short a time, failing to think about how long it might take to make systematic change. The report was intended to be critical: Both Atlantic and Bridgespan want to highlight these shortcomings so others could learn from them.
Atlantic’s exit plan shows it’s trying to fix past mistakes. As Foster notes in his report, the group has drawn up a specific sunset protocol, which it began to execute in 2012, by setting aside a separate pool of funds for “Global Opportunity and Leverage” or GOAL work.
As president and CEO Chris Oechsli wrote in an open letter in 2015, the group wants to “maximize lasting impact.” In a recent conversation, he added that this includes sharing lessons and giving grants to fellows and other groups and institutions that will be able to continue on their work after Atlantic is gone.
One example includes putting $15 million toward the emerging Social Change Initiative, an equal rights group in Belfast, which will push for better policy around protecting human rights, especially for migrants. In another instance, Atlantic gave $50 million to help bankroll the Civic Participation Action Fund in Washington, D.C., whose stated mission is to “promote racial equality, economic opportunity, and democratic participation among low-income people of color through advocacy and civil engagement.”
For his part, Oechsli considers the term “spend down” to be a misnomer. “It’s a very catchy phrase,” he says. What it doesn’t capture is the “upward trajectory” that these last projects will provide for the rest of the industry. As he puts it, “We really are trying to maximize our impact . . . beyond our lifetime.”
Chuck Feeney, the philanthropist who founded Atlantic Philanthropies, made his fortune by opening duty-free shops in airports, but his group’s final efforts have a more Silicon Valley approach. “In effect, these are startups in the sense that we’ve designed them to achieve certain outcomes and develop certain communities of emerging leaders,” Oechsli says.