Laying Foundations for Change: The Atlantic Philanthropies in Melbourne

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Warren Buffett’s bid to out-do Chuck Feeney’s legendary $15 Casio watch, teaching the billionaire philanthropist how to use the Melbourne tram system and spreading the word on Giving While Living were just a handful of the topics covered during Atlantic Philanthropies recent visit to Australia.

L-R: Louise Walsh, Christopher Oechsli, Sarah Davies, Jill Reichstein, Prof Gary Jennings. Photo: Generosity
L-R: Louise Walsh, Christopher Oechsli, Sarah Davies, Jill Reichstein, Prof Gary Jennings. Photo: Generosity

Around 130 members of Melbourne’s philanthropic community braved the winter chill to attend a panel discussion with The Atlantic Philanthropies President and CEO, Christopher Oechsli, at the MCG on August 18.

Joining Oechsli on the panel were incoming Philanthropy Australia CEO and current Reach Foundation CEO Sarah Davies, philanthropist Jill Reichstein, and Professor Gary Jennings from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute. The conversation was moderated by Louise Walsh, CEO of Future Generation Global Investment Company(and former Philanthropy Australia CEO).

The event, convened by Koda Capital, was designed to discuss not only Atlantic’s philanthropic legacy (which includes $570 million worth of grants here in Australia) as it prepares to close its doors by 2020, but also the general state of philanthropy in Australia.

Oechsli explained that Atlantic’s founder, 84-year old Charles ‘Chuck’ Feeney’s love affair with Australian began in the 1990s. Coming to Australia for business with his Duty Free Shoppers Group, Feeney “fell in love with the country and its culture which is very akin to Chuck’s own sensibility and style,” Oechsli says.

Though Feeney—who still wears a $15 watch and owns neither a car nor an apartment—had begun giving away his fortune in 1984, it was done Oecshli says “in a quiet way—consistent with his personal style—until he was outed by the New York Times and Time magazine.”

Professor Gary Jennings attested to Chuck’s down-to-earth approach to philanthropy. “Calling Chuck larger than life probably isn’t the right description because he’s such a humble and genuine person,” Jennings said.

“Philanthropy is so much about personal relationships and trust, and it’s now an apocryphal story but I can proudly say I taught Chuck how to use the Melbourne tram system. I remember he’d get on the tram carrying an old conference bag that belonged to his daughter and off he’d go.”

Oechsli added that the ‘rivalry’ between Feeney and fellow billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett recently prompted Buffett, who was preparing to present Feeney with a Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Philanthropy, to offer an unusual gift.

“Chuck challenges Buffett for his frugality,” Oechsli said with a laugh. “The batteries in Chuck’s $15 Casio watch still have to be replaced every couple of years, so Buffett said ‘I have a Timex watch that’s 50 years old that I wind up and I’d like Chuck to have it—it’s the perfect gift’”.

Giving While Living

Speaking openly and with humility, Oechsli admitted to feeling “a bit conflicted sitting up here in the lights,” because the show-and-tell style road show was not consistent with Feeney’s personal style. (Despite billions of dollars’ worth of capital investments, none of the buildings bear even a plaque with Feeney’s name on it).

“Chuck is a ‘show me, not tell me’ kind of guy,” Oechsli explained. “We recognise there is great diversity in philanthropy and the idea of these discussions is that we want to share things and help encourage others and explore ways to make a difference in peoples’ lives.”

“Even though we’re talking about our experience here with buildings and capital investment, it’s very much still about people.”

In 2002, Feeney and the board decided to pursue the Giving While Living philosophy wholeheartedly and reoriented Atlantic Philanthropies to become a limited life foundation.

“Chuck wanted to be intensely involved in giving in his lifetime and do big things sooner,” Oechsli explained. “He wanted to be able to make big bets, as opposed to a five or six per cent spend rate against the endowment.”

Feeney’s own children (he has five), received a fund for a family foundation 15 years ago and have followed in their father’s footsteps. “They elected to have their own limited life foundation and have basically totally spent down those funds,” Oechsli explained.

Jill Reichstein, speaking about her own experience with the Reichstein Foundation, said that although having “the conversation about the sustainability of the Foundation and its size” was essential, she had opted to let the Foundation operate in perpetuity.

“In a sense we’ve brought a number of people on the road with us and arranged matched funding for a number of projects,” she said. “I think it’s quite good to have that example. My daughter is engaged and passionate about the work of the Foundation and I think passing the baton to her will be the natural progression.”

Collaboration

When queried about Atlantic’s success in leveraging government support, Oechsli explained that matched funding has always been a key component of Feeney’s grantmaking decisions. “Chuck had a rough rule of one third [Atlantic], one third [government] and one third [other funders] and he increasingly worked at inviting other philanthropists to become involved.”

Sarah Davies commented that engaging with government has been challenging for many local philanthropists who faced a set of barriers including attitudinal and educational ones. A notable exception she said was the partnership between the Victorian State Government and an anonymous philanthropic donor which provided seed funding to establish Social Traders in order to build capacity and grow social enterprise.

“During this visit we want to demonstrate what’s possible and share Chuck’s deep satisfaction, not in the continued accumulation of wealth but rather in disbursing it,” Oechsli said.

“It’s really about people, leaders and culture. Chuck was always attracted to big thinkers. Finding those people and working with them was really the focus of his philanthropic efforts.”

The Atlantic Philanthropies participated in 13 events over a two-week period across Australia’s east coast before heading west to Perth. Event attendees each received a copy of the recent publication Laying Foundations for Change: Capital Investments of The Atlantic Philanthropies which is available to download here.

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