Buildings, Bridges and Big Bets
Resource type: News
Christopher G. Oechsli, President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies |
From Elizabeth, N.J., where our founder, Chuck Feeney was born and raised, you can follow the Elizabeth River into New York Bay, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and up the River Shannon to the city of Limerick in the west of Ireland.
Soon after founding The Atlantic Philanthropies, Chuck traveled (in economy, of course) across that vast expanse, where a chance encounter led him to meet Ed Walsh, then the president of the fledgling National Institute of Higher Education, Limerick. Underfunded and not yet conferred with university status (that would come in 1989), the Institute was in effect the higher education underdog of Ireland. Ever the venture philanthropist, seizing opportunities ripe for investment and identifying dynamic, energized leaders to guide the way, Chuck found in Mr. Walsh the right ingredients for Atlantic support: a driven individual and a vital but underappreciated institution in an undervalued environment poised for extraordinary progress and success.
Chuck has the vision of a builder – a builder of businesses, of physical structures, of community, of networks both personal and transnational, and of opportunity, potential and leadership. He embodies Irish author Jonathan Swift’s definition of vision as “the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”
Building an Underdeveloped Institute Into a Renowned Institution
Atlantic’s investments in Ireland began in the late 1980s. It was a time of recession and division, but Chuck saw possibilities. In 1990, building on its experience funding higher education in the United States, Atlantic made its first major investment in Irish physical capital: a more than $15 million donation to construct at Limerick a postgraduate research and cultural center on campus. Over the next 25 years, with Atlantic’s support and matching funds from government, Limerick was transformed from a small institute with 735 students into a leading university with more than 13,000 students.
When further expansion of the campus looked impossible due to the natural northern boundary and county border marked by the River Shannon, Chuck’s vision was again transformative. Atlantic funds purchased land across the river, built state-of-art facilities and developed Limerick’s new northern extension, linked to the original South campus since 2007 by the striking An Droichead Beo, or “The Living Bridge.” This iconic pedestrian passageway connects not only the banks of the Shannon, but County Clare with County Limerick, a span both physical and symbolic.
Since 1990, Atlantic has invested close to $180 million in Limerick’s advanced research, medical and scientific innovation, athletics, music, dance and culture, as well as student residences. One indicator of how far it has come, the University of Limerick was recently named University of the Year 2015 by The Sunday Times. As Chuck has said, “I’m happy when the underdog makes it to the top.”
Soon after its initial investments, and at Chuck’s behest, Atlantic broadened its investments in higher education, building research, academic and student facilities at every university in Ireland, north and south. The intent was to make Ireland more attractive to top-quality students and faculty, with the ultimate goal to keep them productively engaged and employed in the then-burgeoning Irish economy of the 1990s. Since 1999, Atlantic has invested over $300 million in Irish higher education to help foster knowledge-building and economic growth, becoming the sector’s largest private funder. Atlantic’s pioneering of public-private partnerships prompted governments in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to match and exponentially increase resources for university-level research, essential facilities and programs, establishing a pattern of leverage for the foundation’s subsequent funding in South Africa, Viet Nam and Australia.
Bridging divides didn’t stop at the Shannon’s shores. With Atlantic support, our Irish partners have significantly influenced and improved delivery of public services across the island, particularly programs for those less advantaged and most in need of support, like young people and seniors. Our grantees have long been at the forefront of affecting policy change to promote the realization of equal rights, protections and services for the most marginalized in Irish society, such as the LGBT community, immigrants, people with disabilities, and those with dementia.
As Atlantic’s grantmaking and bridge-building in the Republic of Ireland expanded, Chuck turned his attention northward, where he has ancestral roots, to the ongoing sectarian conflict and tragic violence then racking Northern Ireland. “At that time, I felt that the business of bringing a solution to the problem was as good a business as you could get into,” Chuck later said.
Chuck’s personal role in the peace-building efforts was integral to laying the groundwork for what eventually became the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Since then, Atlantic’s grants have helped build and promote peace and justice through reconciliation programs and collaborative education models that have been proven to mitigate conflict and enmity. Atlantic has invested more than $21 million in advocating for and securing human rights in Northern Ireland over the past quarter century.
To date, Atlantic’s grants on the island of Ireland have totaled nearly $2 billion, all designed to lift up opportunities for gainful work, creative discovery, and enhanced dignity, confidence and self-worth. Investments in physical infrastructure – a particular passion of Chuck’s – enabled the building of social and human capital; expanding and leveraging networks; and increasing connectivity, cooperation and collaboration among organizations and across oceans.
Making Big Bets, Embedding Change
As Atlantic concludes its program grantmaking in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, in line with our strategic plans as a limited life foundation, our final grants have been focused on working with government to embed the successful models that the foundation’s grantees helped develop, and on ensuring the sustainability of key grantee organizations that will hold government accountable for providing services and meeting its commitments.
The business of philanthropy as practiced by Atlantic seeks to bridge and merge passion and principle. As an extension of the values and acumen of our founder, our approach has been engaged and personal, at times even risky. Not all of Atlantic’s investments have netted transformational return; there have been missteps and mistakes along the way. But these sporadic stumbles served not to deter future support or foster skepticism, rather they have allowed us to evaluate the errors in order to avoid such frustrations in subsequent funding and pass along the valuable lessons we’ve learned to others in the field. As Samuel Beckett, schooled near Chuck’s ancestral home of Enniskillen, wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
As a visionary entrepreneur, Chuck Feeney saw untapped value in the people of Ireland and sensed a convergence of factors that would allow him to add still more value to their efforts. But vision must be made real with deeds. In the words of William Blake, “Execution is the chariot of genius.” Or, as Chuck simply says, “Success is success.”
Over nearly three decades, Chuck and Atlantic have supported Irish institutions to galvanize new initiatives and partnerships, bridge divides, take risks with new models and strategies, and diversify and democratize voice. Our funding has helped grassroots organizations and marginalized communities challenge the limitations imposed by bias and bigotry and to break down barriers to opportunity, happiness and success. We can’t take credit, but we do take pride in the work and accomplishments of our grantees, partners and colleagues. We have been privileged not only to put to great use Chuck’s good fortune, but also to have lent them support and trusted in their talent, their dedication, their leadership and their future.
The saying that the leaving is the hardest part is true. But it is also true that by acting upon our founder’s philanthropic philosophy of Giving While Living, Atlantic has engaged with its Irish grantees, partners and collaborators to, as Chuck once wrote, “achieve good value and lasting impact.” We have not been spending down, we have been investing in the promise of Ireland’s people and future. That investment is not quite complete, as a number of exciting new announcements in the coming months will demonstrate. And while it is still difficult to draw our grantmaking to a close, we are confident that the ripples of Atlantic will be felt across our shared ocean for generations to come.
Christopher G. Oechsli
President and CEO