What Ambitious Donors Can Learn From The Atlantic Philanthropies’ Experience Making Big Bets

Resource type: Research Report

The Bridgespan Group |

This report analyzes 25 of Atlantic’s “big bet” grants—those over $10 million or more to a single organization or focused initiative—and highlights impact and lessons. The report also discusses what worked and some of the challenges the foundation, its grantees and partners faced.

Atlantic President and CEO Christopher Oechsli said Atlantic commissioned this report, “to show other donors how they can make big bets of their own to make lasting impact and achieve progress toward solving many of today’s pressing social problems.”

For its report, Bridgespan focused on just 25 of the foundation’s big bets and also only looked at ones that met its definition of grants intended to advance social change. Many other big bets that Atlantic made for social change to higher education institutions, hospitals and research institutions are not included in this analysis.

Among Bridgespan’s findings:

  • Atlantic picked distinctive investment spots and funding gaps in the landscape: Some of Atlantic’s most effective big bets focused on a specific point of leverage and where large investments had not yet been made. An example: The Program for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI), which sought to transform Ireland from a place where the biggest export had been its own people into a leader in Europe’s modern knowledge economy.  A 2011 independent assessment of PRTLI’s impact found a variety of benefits, including “a threefold increase in the human capital research base” and commercial impacts over five years estimated to be well over $1 billion.
  • Atlantic supported strong leaders and organizations, often with unrestricted or capacity-building funding In seeking to build a stronger and more professional nonprofit sector in the United States, Atlantic made long-term investments in leaders and their organizations, often with unrestricted funds.For example, Atlantic investments helped the National Center for Charitable Statistics create an objective picture of the sector’s size and scope based on IRS tax return data. Atlantic also gave unrestricted grants to GuideStar to make nonprofit data and analysis accessible to donors, beneficiaries, policymakers, and others.
  • The foundation made big bets when seeking changes in the policy and legal environment Atlantic was willing to take risks on complicated, contentious issues, including using 501(c)(4) funding to support organizations engaged in direct advocacy activities.For example, over the 10 years during which Atlantic invested $59 million to support groups working to abolish the death penalty executions, in the United States declined 52 percent and courts handed down 61 percent fewer death sentences. In addition, the number of states performing executions was cut in half.
  • Atlantic’s limited life and plan to end support within a specific time period factored into its big bets. Because Atlantic will complete its grantmaking the end of 2016, it sought opportunities to spur investments from other sources so that grantees could sustain their work after the foundation’s funding ceased.For example, as part of its work to help strengthen Viet Nam’s provincial primary health care system, Atlantic designed an investment strategy that brought together a range of players: national leaders and policymakers, key provincial leaders, public health specialists, and other institutions such as the school of public health, national pediatric hospital, provincial hospitals, and other parts of the healthcare system, as well as international partners.

The report also identifies what Atlantic could have done differently:

  • Made even more of its big bets to social change and focused its efforts over longer time periods,
  • Approached due diligence more rigorously at times, and
  • Made complementary investments around ambitious capital grants to ensure use of the physical infrastructure would reach its potential.

The Bridgespan Group is an Atlantic grantee. Atlantic commissioned this report.