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Finished, But Not Done

Resource type: News

Christopher G. Oechsli, President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies |


The last two months of 2016 marked the convergence of two critical events for The Atlantic Philanthropies and the people and communities we serve. The first was the completion this month of Atlantic’s grant commitments. We are bringing to conclusion $8 billion in grantmaking over 35 years, in 23 countries on five continents, funded and guided by our founding chairman Chuck Feeney, his values and his principles.

The second event was the U.S. presidential election and its consequences for global progress, security and well-being.

These two events herald the end of one era and the beginning of another. Atlantic has long been committed to improving health, building opportunity, advancing justice and equity, and laying strong and supportive foundations for positive change in communities often ignored and underrepresented. As we prepare to wrap up our operations and close our doors by 2020, what lies ahead also galvanizes and reinforces our purpose and mission and that of our grantees, partners and their communities.

This Last Year and the Work Ahead

The results of the election put into sharper focus the work Atlantic has done and what there still is to do. In the communities we have supported, there is a growing sense that the notable social advances made over the past few decades may be reversed. The many battles for dignity, rights and equality must contend with the recent resurgence of nationalism and nativism.

There is a renewed threat to the vulnerable communities that Atlantic’s grantees have long helped to defend, protect and empower. But for many—such as Native and indigenous people from North Dakota to New South Wales, communities of color from Oakland to Johannesburg, and refugees and immigrants from Syria to Mexico—the struggle for representation and respect continues as it has for decades, if not centuries, regardless of who is occupying the Oval Office or occupying Wall Street. These endeavors transcend politics and party. They are the ongoing struggles for a better, fairer and more just world.

Now, more than ever, we need effective, ethical leadership that bridges divides within and across borders, cultures and ideology. We need leaders who understand complexity and speak to our shared humanity and aspirations, to what Abraham Lincoln referred to as “the better angels of our nature.” This is where the convergence of current events makes Atlantic’s final philanthropic initiatives even more crucial.

Our Biggest Bet Ever: Empowering the Atlantic Fellows

“Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

Atlantic is investing in a global community of emerging leaders who can appeal to those “better angels” that most motivate us—to inclusion and empathy rather than exclusion and prejudice. Fostering such leadership, especially at a time of such division, is a formidable task, one that we or any funder can only undertake at a modest scale. But it is what we can offer in the hopes of constructively engaging the most fundamental concerns of our time.

Photo: Getty Images.
Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity will study the causes of and develop solutions to anti-black racism. Photo: Getty Images.

As we considered how to conclude our operations, we have aimed to maximize the effectiveness of our grantees and to have impact that would outlast Atlantic. For our final act, we are supporting and connecting a new generation of leaders—the Atlantic Fellows—to challenge persistent disparities and make improvements in the human condition across communities, countries and continents.

The Atlantic Fellows represent an investment in people who have the rigor, persistence and passion to make differences that will reverberate long beyond Atlantic’s existence. That has been our mission since Chuck Feeney’s first grant in 1982 and guides us as we complete our work.

Three final Atlantic Fellows programs embody that goal: Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity in South Africa, Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity in the United States and South Africa, and Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity in Australia. Along with three previously announced Atlantic fellowship programs and the supporting Atlantic Institute, these initiatives will activate a new force—more than 3,500 emerging leaders over the next two decades—to advance fairer, healthier, more inclusive societies.

“South Africa is hungry for leaders who can heal divisions and help build a healthy, stable country.”
Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity, Tekano Chair Dr. Tracey Naledi


“Supporting multi-racial and multi-ethnic leadership could not be more urgent or essential at this time of intense national debates on race and equity.”
Kavitha Mediratta, founding executive director of the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity program

“There is a growing realization around the world that social exclusion, especially economic exclusion, is putting democratic societies at risk, and that makes an investment like this in future leaders from excluded populations a nation-building exercise that will help ensure a healthy and secure society.”
– Professor Marcia Langton, the foundation chair in Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne

This is Atlantic’s biggest bet ever, totaling over $600 million. It represents the culmination of the foundation’s long history of investing in people and in their vision and ability to improve the lives of others, especially the vulnerable and disadvantaged among us. These three new programs all seek to support leaders committed to addressing systemic barriers to equality, opportunity and dignity.

The Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity program, led by the University of Melbourne, aims to tackle the broader issues of social inequality in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. Photo: The University of Melbourne

Deep bias and discrimination continue to afflict communities of color around the world. We see this in overt disparities in justice, educational, health and other public service systems, and in the persistent images and language of division and exclusion in political discourse and the media. These most recently established Atlantic Fellows programs, designed and operated in collaboration with extraordinary partners, seek to address the legacies of slavery in the United States, apartheid in South Africa and colonialism in Australia.

The new Isivivana Centre in Khayelitsha will house Tekano and the Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity in South Africa.

Developed over the past several years, the six Atlantic Fellows programs are now taking shape. Together they are intended to create a sustained global community of creative, courageous and catalytic changemakers to address some of the most pressing issues of our time. These Atlantic Fellows will confront the root causes of socio-economic and racial inequality, barriers to full participation in democracy, and critical health challenges, including dementia and a lack of access to quality care. They will organize and collaborate across borders and disciplines. They will be adventurous and bold. Together they will bring their ideas, experience, caring, humor and outrage to create real change.

“I had one idea that never changed in my mind – that you should use your wealth to help people.”
– Chuck Feeney

In the end, as Chuck Feeney intended from our beginning, it’s always about people—people with vision, with purpose and commitment; people who build communities, movements and brighter futures. And though the arc of history and the journey toward progress are long and fraught with unexpected twists and turns, the effort to equip and empower these people is vital and ever more urgent. So at Atlantic, even as we complete our grantmaking, we rededicate ourselves to that proposition and begin anew.

Atlantic’s grantmaking may now be complete, but our work is not. I have been humbled and inspired by the tireless efforts of our thousands of grantees over the past 35 years, as well as those of Atlantic’s determined and dedicated staff. Time-limited philanthropy relies on putting the organizational values and goals above one’s own longevity, to do the work needed and to pass the torch. The Atlantic family—our alumni of visionary leaders and program officers, and our operations, investment, evaluation, communications and finance staff—have committed so much to this work and will continue to do so. They too are the lasting spirit and legacy of this organization.

A small team of Atlantic staff will remain through early 2020 to support and enhance these recently launched efforts and to ensure they are well-poised to achieve our aspirations. Ultimately, these hopes and aspirations will be realized in the endeavors of the Atlantic Fellows, these young, creative champions committed to the values that we have sought to work by and promote. Echoing Chuck Feeney’s rigor, modesty, empathy and selflessness, we are confident they will continue, as Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”—to help people, and to build a better world.

Christopher G. Oechsli, President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies

Best Regards,


Christopher G. Oechsli
President and CEO