Limited Life, Unlimited Impact
Resource type: News
Christopher G. Oechsli, President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies |
September 14, 2021
One year ago today, Chuck Feeney signed the documents to dissolve the 38-year-old Atlantic Foundation that he founded to distribute his entire business fortune to improve the lives of others. In December 2020, the Atlantic Foundation disbursed the final payments of its more than $8 billion grant total, then dissolved. In April 2021, Chuck celebrated his 90th birthday, confident of and pleased with his Giving While Living efforts to better humanity. His goal? “I had one idea that never changed in my mind – that you should use your wealth to help people.”
Some refer to Atlantic as the largest “spend down” foundation. They are wrong. We did not spend down. We converted our funds to accelerate the efforts of others to help people. That work and impact continue through the people and organizations, and in the facilities, funded by Atlantic. Passive, inert endowment money–lying dormant in investment accounts visible only on paper financial statements–has been converted into active efforts to improve the lives of others that continue well beyond the dissolution of the foundation.
Seeds grow. Large forests require planting today. The ongoing work of each active Atlantic grantee is an example of how that passive, finite wealth can be multiplied into active efforts to improve knowledge, health, and fairness in the societies in which those grantees have worked and continue to work. These outcomes are examples of wealth compounding that Warren Buffett champions, only they reach beyond balance sheets and Forbes magazine’s lists of the wealthiest. They touch people’s lives, often with lasting influence and impact on systems that amplify and sustain the benefits of desired improvements in our societies.
Giving While Living; Behind the Scenes at Atlantic’s Archives
I often am contacted by those seeking some insight into Atlantic’s limited life philanthropy and Chuck’s personal decision to commit his entire wealth to strategic philanthropic purposes in his lifetime. For those who wish to learn more about Atlantic’s operations, strategies, and choices and Chuck’s Giving While Living journey, you can check out Atlantic’s Insights Series on our website, which is actively curated by Cornell University. I am pleased to report that Cornell University has completed the organization and cataloging of Atlantic’s archives, most of which is now available to the public. You can now explore digital and documentary materials available through Cornell University Library’s website and the Digital Repository of Ireland’s Amplifying Change: a History of the Atlantic Philanthropies on the Island of Ireland. While we remain alert to sensitive and personal information in those archives, and have appropriate filters, we have not attempted to edit our mistakes or messy processes. We hope you will find something in those materials that will be of value to your related endeavors.
Compound Investing in People: The Atlantic Fellows
The Atlantic Foundation has spent its funds and no longer makes grants. It was dissolved in December 2020. But the foundation’s investments continue to yield compound returns.
A compelling and leading example of Giving While Living that yields enduring, compounding returns is the community of Atlantic Fellows, a dynamic group of global leaders. I continue to engage with the fellows as CEO of the residual Atlantic Philanthropies group and as Chair of The Atlantic Institute governing board. Funded by Atlantic’s final grants of over $700 million, this initiative includes seven global fellowship programs and the supporting Atlantic Institute, dedicated to building fairer, healthier, more inclusive societies.
The community of Atlantic Fellowship programs includes:
The Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, based at Columbia University in New York and the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa, is building an enduring transnational network of leaders across issues, approaches, and geographies to challenge anti-Black racism and build the policies, institutions, and narratives needed for a more equitable future.
The Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity, based at the University of Melbourne, in collaboration with the University of Auckland, whose mission is to drive Indigenous social equity by maximizing the impact of social change makers and connecting them with peers around the world.
The Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity in Southeast Asia at the Equity Initiative, developed in partnership with the China Medical Board, advances social justice in health in Southeast Asia and China.
The Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity, based at the London School of Economics and Political Science, is building a catalytic, values-led global community of people who are committed to using collective leadership to work towards social and economic justice for all.
The Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity at the George Washington University develops global leaders who understand the foundations of health inequity and have the knowledge, skills, and courage to build more equitable organizations and communities.
The Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity in South Africa at Tekano, in Khayelitsha, focuses on realizing a more equitable South African society with improved health status across all populations by fostering dynamic, visionary, value-based leaders working in catalytic communities of learning and action to promote health equity.
The Atlantic Fellows for Equity in Brain Health, based at the University of California San Francisco and Trinity College Dublin, is dedicated to improving brain health and reducing the impact of dementia across the world by reaching into local communities and a global network across disciplines, professions, backgrounds, skills, perspectives, and approaches to develop new science-based solutions with a focus on vulnerable and under-served populations.
While each of these programs has a distinctive perspective and program experience, they share a common goal of addressing systemic inequality through actionable strategies and efforts. The complexities of the Covid era have highlighted and heightened the need for these efforts.
The Atlantic Institute provides Atlantic Fellows and staff with the networks, architecture, and resources to connect, learn, and act to address the underlying systemic causes of inequity – locally and globally. The Atlantic Fellows Hub is a community-wide online space where Fellows can find each other to debate, collaborate, and act on equity issues. They are also supported through courageous programming, with virtual and face-to-face platforms to shift narratives, shape policy, and create (k)new solutions. In building a catalytic community of leaders who connect, learn, and collaborate for greater impact, the Institute drives a culture of learning and innovation by responding to changing needs, new technologies, and brave ideas. It also does this by establishing a sustainable global network with strong strategic partners and alliances with other fellowship and leadership programs, including the Obama Fellows, Rhodes Scholars, Ford Foundation, Open Society, and Roddenberry Fellows.
There are now more than 651 exceptional lifelong Atlantic Fellows from 68 countries, supported by programming and seed funding from the Atlantic Institute. All Atlantic Fellows are actively committed to the values and outcomes that Chuck and the foundation sought to support with the funds at our disposal. They are force multipliers, making a difference in the lives of others. “Spend down”? Not when you look at it this way: The return on investment is high and growing as net human asset values are increasing. As Chuck has been fond of saying: “When it comes down to it, it’s always about people.” Taking that currency as a measure, Atlantic’s investment return keeps growing.
Please take some time to meet the Atlantic Fellows and learn about their work. Become an Atlantic Fellow or recommend to someone they consider becoming a Fellow. Stay connected with this growing community and share its benefits. For those interested in the evolution of the Atlantic Fellows program as the foundation’s final big bet, you can read Mary McDonnell’s comprehensive report here.
Pay It Forward
As we approach the first anniversary of the dissolution of the Atlantic Foundation, I can report that the enjoyment and satisfaction that Chuck gets from observing the work of the Atlantic Fellows and many other active grantees is a personal wealth that surpasses amassing money. The hard, sometimes burdensome work, of managing financial assets and making the difficult decisions of how to best deploy those assets, has given way to a joy in seeing people empowered to use those resources to improve the lives of others, to create healthier, fairer, more inclusive societies – to pay it forward.
To those who have resources to give: accelerating your giving in your lifetime is not an early ending. It is an accelerated beginning for needed improvements in the lives of others. I have been privileged to be part of the grant making experience at The Atlantic Philanthropies, and I remain privileged to be in the company of those who continue to leverage and multiply the resources that Chuck and Atlantic were able to share in Chuck’s lifetime. Though our grant making has ended, the work of our grantees and colleagues has not. Your work and your interest in this community is essential to us continuing this shared journey and to realizing our shared aspirations.
Stay connected and be well.
Christopher G. Oechsli