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Insights Zero is the Hero

About the Book

Zero is the hero.

Atlantic spent over three decades striving for zero—to empty our coffers, shutter our doors, to give it all away. This Insights offers an in-depth look at the numbers behind Atlantic’s journey to advance opportunity and promote equity and dignity around the world. It covers:

  • Why our founder Chuck Feeney devoted nearly his entire fortune to philanthropy during his lifetime
  • Where the $8 billion came from, and where it went.
  • The ups, downs, highs and lows of Atlantic’s giving and operations.
  • Key lessons for funders and emerging philanthropists.

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Let’s start with zero.

For most business and philanthropic endeavors, zero is the enemy, the obstacle—the thing you are trying to get away from as quickly as possible. Read any financial report, academic paper, or government study, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a celebrated zero—unless it’s in a long, numerical series separated by many commas. After all, with so much human activity focused on productivity, growth, and action, zero is the mathematical opponent—something to be fought and defeated.

At The Atlantic Philanthropies, however, zero is the hero. It’s the star, the spark, the goal. While other philanthropies focus on endless growth and increasing their endowments so they’ll have enough money to give away for perpetuity, Atlantic has spent three-plus decades striving for zero—to empty its coffers, shutter its doors, to give it all away.

And what has this quest for zero yielded?

  • $8+ billion in grants
  • 10 global offices
  • 300+ staffers
  • 6,500 grants to nearly 2,500 recipients
  • 373,000% of Feeney’s current net worth given over his lifetime
  • 1 billionaire who went broke—on purpose

“Our giving is based on the opportunities,” says Chuck Feeney, Atlantic’s founder, “not on a plan to stay in business for a long time.” What follows is a fascinating look at the foundation’s life-changing projects and world-changing impact—all thanks to the passionate pursuit of getting to zero.


Chuck Feeney has championed Giving While Living.
10 offices. 9 regions. $8+ billion in grants.

Global Impact

Over 37 years, Atlantic’s investments advanced opportunity, health, human rights and dignity across the globe. Its grantees made significant contributions to:

  • Catalyze the advancement of knowledge economies in the Republic of Ireland and Australia.
  • Hasten the end of the U.S. juvenile death penalty.
  • Increase the number of children with health insurance in the U.S. and help win passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
  • Bring peace to Northern Ireland.
  • Secure life-saving medication for millions afflicted with HIV/AIDS in South Africa.
  • Reduce racial disparities in destructive zero-tolerance discipline policies in U.S. schools.
  • Enable Viet Nam to develop a more equitable system for delivering health care throughout the country.

Facts and Figures

Top Five Grantees

(total grants, in millions)

  1. Cornell University $965
  2. University of California, San Francisco $636
  3. University of Limerick $181
  4. Trinity College Dublin $168
  5. Stanford University $145

Key Lessons

Accounting for a few minuses among the pluses.

Here are some insights the numbers reveal and lessons learned along the way:

  1. When making big bets, don't go all in at once.
    Atlantic learned it's a good practice to make an initial series of small bets and then determine next steps.
  2. Investing millions to influence the way billions are spent — that’s strategic.
    By leveraging money from government and other donors, Atlantic often achieved a bigger social impact.
  3. Not all matches are made in heaven (when money is involved).
    Requiring grantees to match grants can be an effective tool—but only when considered on a case-by-case basis.
  4. When staffing up or down, remember the Goldilocks principle: stick to the number that’s “just right.”
    A lean operation keeps an organization focused on its core mission, but limited life organizations have unique needs.
  5. As the final years of grantmaking approach, switch to investments with low volatility and greater predictability.
    Atantic's investment approach was significantly different from foundations managing their portfolios for perpetuity.
  6. Being truly global is complicated, but worth it.
    Having local staff enabled Atlantic to establish itself as a partner with a range of organizations and government.

“I see little reason to delay giving when so much good can be achieved through supporting worthwhile causes today. Besides, it’s a lot more fun to give while you live than to give while you are dead.”

Chuck Feeney


Read it now.

Dive deeper into the numbers behind Atlantic’s pursuit of zero. Discover the highs and lows of the foundation’s operations and grantmaking, and steps taken so its last check wouldn’t bounce.

Download the full book (PDF) ›

Further Reading

Download Full Book (PDF)

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