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NOT Spending Down: CEO Update

Resource type: News

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

Atlantic is not a “spend down” foundation, although we’re often described as such.

Yes, we will complete all of our grantmaking by the end of 2016. The term “spending down,” however, suggests a slow, inexorable depletion of assets, resources and impact or perhaps a rushed process of shoveling money out the door before the foundation closes. Nothing could be further from our founder Chuck Feeney’s intent and Giving While Living philosophy. As Atlantic Board member Sara Lawrence Lightfoot frequently admonishes, “Words matter.” And the term “spend down” doesn’t begin to express who we are, what we do or the “why” of our philanthropy.

In fact, Atlantic is literally and figuratively in a “building up” phase – developing our final philanthropic investments and building on the advances, successes and lessons learned from our 30+-year history of grantmaking. These final years will be among our most active, creative and, we expect, effective. Like a symphony, the themes, movements and passages in our prior grantmaking are coming together in a crescendo that we hope will resonate long after the playing of the final note.

Building Up to the End

“Like a symphony, the themes, movements and passages in our prior grantmaking are coming together in a crescendo that we hope will resonate long after the playing of the final note.”

That theme of linkage, connection and coming together was particularly palpable in late February when I was privileged to join with President Barack Obama and the heads of leading foundations to announce a public-private partnership to create opportunities and eliminate barriers for young men of colour in the United States. The East Wing of the White House was filled with funders, advocates, business and faith leaders, and young people – a diverse crowd all committed to advancing opportunity for young men of colour.

Although it was hard to see around or over the great (in stature and in life) Magic Johnson, who was seated next to me; behind him was Jean Quan, the Mayor of Oakland, California; and her Deputy Mayor Sandré Swanson. Mayor Quan and I met earlier that morning over breakfast to discuss the several threads of Atlantic and the city’s work together.

Oakland is an example of a place where the impact of Atlantic’s strategies and support are evident not only through the lens of reformed school discipline policies or in the expansion of school-based health centres in Alameda County. Rather, the effects are woven into the tapestry of the entire community. More children are healthy and in school, more schools have replaced harsh and ineffective “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies with more rational and effective ones, and more families and communities are engaged and connected with the resources to help their children succeed. This is a multifaceted, comprehensive effort that seeks to strengthen a connected, committed community.

As we near the end of our grantmaking, that’s what we’re going for. If our story was just about investing and spending money, we could be a bank or a brokerage. But Atlantic’s story isn’t just about spending. We are investing in sustained, systemic improvements in our constituency communities.

This characteristic isn’t distinctive to Atlantic or to a limited life approach. In fact, it is the aspiration of many foundations, including those with much longer lives than ours. What sets Atlantic apart is the intensity and urgency that comes with a limited life, which sharpens focus and necessarily requires that we prioritise what matters most in the context of our experience and opportunities for lasting impact.

Our Final Focus

Because our funds and time are limited, and because we believe philanthropy is more effective when focused on doing a few things well, our final “bets” will be fewer and bigger. By fewer, I mean focused on fewer themes and recipients. By “bigger,” we don’t necessarily mean bigger in dollars, euros, pound sterling, rand or dong, but bigger in concept and catalytic opportunity. For example, we are:

  • Promoting and improving care for chronic health conditions.
    Globally, people are living longer and our demographic profiles reflect an older population. The burdens of health care are shifting to chronic disease and issues associated with dementia. How effectively we manage chronic health conditions will determine the quality of life for millions and have significant fiscal impact. Building on our prior work in this area in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, the United States, Viet Nam and South Africa we are looking at opportunities to accelerate change for chronic care delivery. We also expect to support a few leading palliative care organisations and to facilitate meaningful interaction and connections within that community of practitioners, policymakers and funders.
  • Tackling inequality and promoting opportunity.
    Drawing on our varied work in the United States on school discipline reform, ending discriminatory policing practices, community schooling and health care access in disadvantaged communities, and abolition of the death penalty, we are honing in on the underlying and pervasive challenge of eliminating race-based disparities in opportunity that lies at the root of these issues and thus improves outcomes for the most disadvantaged among us. Atlantic’s engagement with government and other foundations encompasses our grantees’ historical work and success to date and will identify prospects for deeper and broader evidence-based investments in promoting equality that can be sustained beyond Atlantic’s limited life.
  • Enhancing health equity for diverse populations in low resource environments.
    A core aspect of Atlantic’s grantmaking in Viet Nam and South Africa has been to improve access to and delivery of effective community-based primary care by developing the human resource base to provide the care and promote prevention. Building on this history, we are exploring what lasting contributions Atlantic might be able to make most effectively and sustainably to the longer term development of human capital in those regions and elsewhere.
  • Strengthening, even launching transformative organisations and efforts, like the recent establishment of the Bermuda Community Foundation that will generate and support strategic philanthropy on the island.
  • Sharing the playbooks.
    We are also summarising, synthesising and analysing the methods and approaches that Atlantic and our grantees have used to achieve desired outcomes and social change, such as strategic public litigation, advocacy, capital investments (both physical and human), place-based and evidence-based models of best practices, matching grants, partnerships with government, and communications and public engagement efforts. Which strategies and tactics have worked well to achieve desired impact? Which haven’t? What does our experience and that of our grantees tell us? To whom does and should this experience matter? What broad conclusions might we draw that would be of use to current and prospective funders?

Telling the Stories

We are exploring how to capture and share our and our grantees’ extensive and varied experience in ways that productively inform and influence others. Compiling and telling compelling stories about this work are critical to maximising desired results and impact.

Take, for instance, the story of Mary Johnson and Oshea Isreael – a mother who forgives the man who killed her son. Or Sabrina Butler Porter, the only woman ever exonerated from death row in the United States. As the leading funder of efforts to abolish the death penalty, their stories are reminders that the death penalty is not a theoretical or political issue, but a human one that affects people with faces and names and with husbands, mothers and children.

We are also committed to telling our own story as a limited life foundation. The book of Atlantic is yet to be written, but we want it to tell the story of who we are, what we sought to accomplish and what was effective in achieving desired change. So, when we completed grantmaking in South Africa and Viet Nam last December, we produced two short films to tell the stories of impact in those places.

We are also working to document the outcomes and effectiveness of our more than $2.2 billion of capital investments in six countries, many of them initiated and directed by our Founding Chairman Chuck Feeney.

And we are working with StoryCorps and the Center for Oral History at Columbia University to capture and preserve these stories from the perspectives of the people who have been part of them. These efforts are underway, but we hope they will record the unique experiences shared by those of us who have had the privilege to be part of Atlantic’s journey, and inform those who may wish to learn from it in the future.

All of this is to say: Atlantic is not “spending down,” but rather gearing up in focused, intentional and powerful ways to maximise impact, amplify some of the big bets we’ve previously made and capture and share our stories to show what has been, and will be, accomplished. Stay tuned. The symphony is building and there are key movements to come.


Christopher G. Oechsli
President and CEO