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Feeling the Pressures of a Limited Life

Resource type: News

The Intrepid Philanthropist | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Tony Proscio

Leadership changes, strategic reviews, the closing of some programs and a fresh emphasis on others — all these are part of the normal cycle at just about any foundation. They may feel momentous at the time, but at most foundations, where endowments last indefinitely, the drama soon fades and life returns to normal. There’s always time to reconsider decisions, correct mistakes, try a fresh approach.

Yet if the institution is ceasing operations in a few years’ time, none of these events is routine. As each year passes, more and more decisions become irreversible. Even when the Board and management are confident of the value of their work, they begin to feel a kind of pressure rarely experienced at perpetual foundations: They begin making decisions that can’t be un-made.

In 2011, and more so in 2012, the Atlantic Philanthropies began feeling that pressure, and found itself making choices that would soon be final. As the largest endowed philanthropy ever to go deliberately out of business, Atlantic entered 2011 with only five years of active grantmaking left. Its staff had always known that this time would come — the decision for a limited life had been taken a decade earlier. But for most employees, that knowledge had been largely theoretical. The foundation carried on in previous years in much the same way as its perpetual cousins.

In 2012, however, Atlantic drew up its final strategic plans for its long-term programs: Children & Youth, Population Health, Aging, and Reconciliation & Human Rights. It ceased operations in Australia and set in motion the conclusion of regular grantmaking in South Africa, Viet Nam, and Bermuda. Managers set to work “focusing and re-focusing” their grants in the United States, Ireland, and Northern Ireland, with an eye toward achieving the greatest possible results in the most promising lines of work and drawing the rest to a productive close. Employees were introduced to a severance plan, along with general principles for how its terms would apply to each staff member. Positions started to be eliminated, farewell e-mails started appearing in in-boxes, and planning was under way to project declining staffing needs for the remaining years.

For Atlantic’s leaders, the critical challenge has been to keep the focus on the work that lies ahead, including the considerable opportunities for achievement. They created a new line in the program budget for a Global Opportunity and Leverage fund — GOAL, for short — from which grants would be made to solidify the biggest accomplishments, shore up leadership in promising fields, gather up the lessons and insights from past work, and generally ensure that the Foundation’s results would be strong and enduring.

This report, the third in a series, covers two difficult years of judgment, planning, and adjustment. The more invigorating work of completion, learning, and celebration began in 2013. The next report, for which research has already begun, will therefore begin with Atlantic’s look forward, and follow the foundation as it redirects its energies from conclusion to culmination.

Atlantic commissioned this report.