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A man with so much to spend but so little time

Resource type: News

Financial Times |

One evening last spring, as a fierce north-easter tore through the New York region, Gara LaMarche settled in to watch The Sopranos and bake batches of muffins.

The next morning, baked goodies safely stowed in Ziploc bags, he set off for the offices of The Atlantic Philanthropies on Park Avenue. It was April 16, his first day as president and chief executive of the $4bn foundation.

I brought some home-made banana nut and blueberry muffins which are on the conference table in my office, he wrote in an e-mail to colleagues. If you have made your way through the floods to get here this morning, please come by to get one (I will try to be a better manager than baker … ).

The gesture was a fitting start to his stewardship of an organisation committed to human rights and advocacy. And it was emblematic of a man who has spent most of his life fighting to bring down barriers and improve others’ lives.

In a career that has spanned more than three decades, the 53-year-old activist has, among other things, fought for legal representation for death-row inmates while at the American Civil Liberties Union, championed lesbian and gay rights at Human Rights Watch and focused on challenges to social justice and democracy at the Open Society Institute.

Now he faces a different, though no less daunting, task: overseeing a limited-life foundation. Atlantic plans to spend down its endowment by 2020. Using current projections, that means about $350m a year in new grants. To put that in perspective, foundations are required to spend only 5 per cent of assets each year, so Atlantic will be spending as if it were a wealthier, $7bn foundation.

It is a heavy responsibility, says the soft-spoken LaMarche. We are dealing with a lot of big problems and we want to make an impact, otherwise there is no point. We want to make some progress to our goals in the time we are around and that could be liberating or paralysing, and sometimes both.

The foundation makes grants in seven countries and focuses on ageing, disadvantaged children and youth, population health, and reconciliation and human rights.

Its work in ageing, which is centred on enabling the elderly to be an integral part of society, stands out because relatively few foundations are concerned with the issue. But its other programmes also tackle areas that are often below the radar screen.

For example, it has spent more than $1bn in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, much of it for secondary education. In Vietnam, the foundation was concerned about the appalling rate of traffic injuries and deaths and, through its grantees, worked with the government to pass a safety law requiring all motorbike riders to wear a helmet. As soon as the law was passed in December, the number of traffic injuries fell sharply.

And in South Africa, Atlantic is concerned that, while the law protects citizens’ human rights as never before, some groups remain stigmatised. These include black, mostly poor gays and lesbians, living in townships and rural areas; and migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, who are the targets of xenophobia. One of the foundation’s goals is to strengthen organisations that campaign for the rights of the rural poor, immigrants and the gay community.

These are issues that resonate with LaMarche. Known for his dedication to human rights and social justice, he has never shied from speaking out. In that sense, he was an unusual choice for a foundation that, until the late 1990s, made a rule of swearing its beneficiaries to absolute secrecy.

In another sense, he is the perfect fit. Like LaMarche, Atlantic is no stranger to controversy in the US the foundation has championed causes such as immigration reform, restoring voting rights for convicted criminals and campaigning to end the death penalty. Its work in these areas has rested heavily on the power of advocacy.

Policy and advocacy are not dirty words they are essential to change in all the fields we are working, LaMarche says. (Because the foundation is domiciled in Bermuda, it can take on more of an advocacy role. US foundations, however, are restricted under federal tax law from most forms of legislative lobbying.)

The board in hiring me knew I had a background as an advocate and have tended to try and speak out from wherever I was and they wanted me to continue to do that, he says. In particular, the trustees have urged him to use his voice on behalf of the foundation’s founder, Chuck Feeney, and his model of giving while living.

LaMarche will also continue to speak out on human rights and social justice issues. He believes elites including foundations, politicians and university leaders should weigh in on carefully chosen, large policy questions.

I have a strong bias for grassroots but I also believe that elite institutions have a very important role to play. One big missing piece in the US in recent years has been enough leadership from places that are more protected, he says. On issues like immigration, civil liberties, racism and the criminal justice system, you can provide a lot of cover and support for the people on the front lines if you speak out judiciously from whatever protected position you have.

What often keeps college presidents and politicians from speaking out, he notes, is their dependence on fundraising, which tends to make them more cautious. But foundations have no such constraints.

Foundations [enjoy] a rather protected position so why don’t they speak out on things that are counter-majoritarian? When you have a low point for civil liberties, for instance, you would expect leaders of foundations to be moral voices in the society and by and large there isn’t much of that.

While his role brings prestige and power, LaMarche is careful not to forget the two decades spent on the other side at grant-seeking organisations. To do so would risk succumbing to what he says is an occupational hazard of philanthropy. You are surrounded by people who want something from you and who will tell you your ideas are good whether they really are or not. You don’t have much of a market mechanism. If you’re not careful you come to see yourself as the centre of the universe.

To prevent that happening, he searches constantly for ways to ensure foundation staff listen to the fields they support and provide grantees opportunities to criticise their work. There is a very great imbalance in the philanthropy business, he says. You rarely get the kind of candour that you could benefit from.

To encourage feedback, LaMarche launched a bi-weekly column cleverly titled Atlantic Currents that includes his e-mail address. In his debut posting last July, he told readers foundations were often viewed as mysterious, unaccountable entities and he wanted the column to demystify Atlantic and throw a spotlight on the way it operates.

He also changed the wording on the website regarding unsolicited proposals. When you say ‘we don’t take unsolicited proposals’, it ratchets up your need to be accountable and sensitive.

He believes accountability is a function not only of internal measures but also of external oversight and that philanthropy would benefit from a more engaged press. The biggest challenge in philanthropy is getting genuine accountability, he says.

LaMarche acknowledges transparency has not been the strong suit of Atlantic historically, but adds: I’ve asked the question, which we haven’t answered yet, of ‘how can Atlantic go from being the most secret foundation to the most open foundation?’ And we’re not there yet by a long shot.

As is typical of incoming chief executives, he is reviewing Atlantic’s strategies in order to identify areas that need more investment and those where funding might be scaled back. I’m not exactly sure where that will all come out but I have a gut feeling that Atlantic, despite the vastness of its resources, might decide in the next year or two to focus even more that that would be the best way of making an impact.

He is also exploring the possibility of shorter-term initiatives opportunistic grants that are consistent with Atlantic’s mission but do not necessarily fit within its existing strategies.

LaMarche’s openness to new ideas comes as no surprise to those who know him. He is thoughtful, willing to listen and insatiably curious, they say. He also has a rich social life and interests that range from trash television to cooking, urban design, bike riding, and presidents. LaMarche is also a voracious reader and prodigious writer, having penned numerous articles and blogs about politics, music, books and films.

This eclectic mixture, coupled with deep roots as an activist and advocate, bodes well for Atlantic as it embraces mortality. The best philanthropists, like the best of anything, use the sum total of their experience and then take a leap, he says.

Side Bar: Billionaire who believes in giving while living

In 1999 the trustees of The Atlantic Philanthropies resolved to spend the foundation out of existence rather than maintain it in perpetuity. The practice, known as sunsetting, is in contrast to most foundations, which live on for ever.

Atlantic says its self-imposed expiration date is in keeping with the spirit and philosophy of its founder, Chuck Feeney, the entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist whose story is related in Conor O’Clery’s recent book, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing.

Feeney, a co-founder of Duty Free Shoppers, was influenced by Andrew Carnegie, the great philanthropist. In a note to Atlantic trustees when the foundation’s future was being discussed, Feeney said: I believe that people of substantial wealth potentially create problems for future generations unless they themselves accept responsibility to use their wealth during their lifetimes to help worthwhile causes.

Born of a working class Irish-American family in New Jersey, Feeney took to heart the Gaelic saying that there are no pockets in a shroud.

Other donors are embracing sunsetting, most notably the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which, in 2006, said it would spend all its assets within 50 years of the death of its last trustee. Proponents of this policy say it brings an urgency to grant-making and forces foundations to focus on achieving their aims faster and more effectively.

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