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Silent philanthropy finally comes out

Resource type: News

Business Day | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Katy Chance.  A “ROLLICKING story of how, by stealth, an Irish American obsessed with secrecy built a business empire and revolutionised philanthropy”, is how The Economist describes the 2007 book, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: how Chuck Feeney secretly made and gave away a fortune, by Conor O’Clery.

Feeney came from a blue- collar Irish-American family. After fighting in the Korean war he was a beneficiary of the “GI Bill”, which enabled him to study at Cornell University.

He began his career selling duty-free drink to the military at Mediterranean ports in the 1950s and went on to make “a fortune as co-founder of Duty Free Shoppers, the world’s largest duty-free retail chain”.

In 1988, Forbes listed him the 23rd-richest man in the US, but by then he had already moved almost all his wealth into a private foundation, and given most of it away, anonymously.

By December of last year, the foundation had made grants totalling more than 5bn.

Few people have heard of Feeney, including myself until I noticed the name The Atlantic Philanthropies — started by Feeney in 1982 — coming up so often in the social investment world here. It turns out they have an office in Jo burg and its head is Gerald Kraak.

Kraak describes Feeney, now 79, as shy but insightful and “progressive politically. He is critical of US foreign policy historically, which is why he’s done so much in Vietnam.”

Atlantic has been funding projects in SA indirectly since 1994 and directly since 2002. In that same year it was decided Atlantic would be a spend-down foundation, that is, one with a limited life; the organisation will close its doors in 2016, in keeping with Feeney’s “giving while living” credo.

Perpetual funds continue long after a founder has departed and often move away from the motivation and ideology of the founder.

“Also, it forces us to focus where to put our funds as we have to be effective over a limited time with a finite amount of money,” says Kraak.

Provision will be made to ensure the integrity of multiyear projects that extend beyond the spend-down deadline.

Atlantic’s work worldwide addresses, most notably, the root causes of social injustice; and funds efforts to challenge policies and institutions that systematically exclude or disadvantage people.

“In 2002, our audit identified three vulnerable or marginalised groups in SA,” says Kraak. “Which are gay and lesbians; refugees, asylum seekers and migrants; and the rural poor.”

As Feeney felt he owed so much of his success to higher education, a lot of Atlantic’s funding goes towards supporting that in SA, particularly in the area of public health, and as it pertains to rural areas.

“Last year, Atlantic put R30m into SA’s nursing profession. Our research showed a desperate need for human capacity in public health, so we are focusing strongly on nursing as a profession, which has lost a lot of its prestige, as the backbone of public health.”

Through its Friends of Mosvold scholarship, the foundation pays for health professionals to study against an agreed minimum work period, usually in a rural area, and most stay longer than the required minimum. Their work in the refugee and migrant sector is quite “embryonic”. “We are monitoring border points and supporting migrants’ legal rights with Lawyers for Human Rights and the Wits Law Clinic.”

It is a growing area, though not in a good way. Kraak says there were about 200000 refugees in SA but since the collapse of Zimbabwe, some put as many as a third of that country’s population now in SA.

The 2008 and more recent xenophobia was a “huge shock”.

“Our grantees had to turn their focus away from policy change and human rights for refugees to humanitarian relief, so we see a real need to improve policy and attitudes in this area.”

 Kraak, who studied to teach literature and history, got sidelined by the student movement and, on being called up for military service, left SA. He worked with the antiapartheid movement in Holland and later in the UK for the International Defence and Aid Fund, raising funds for the defence of southern Africans on trial for political “crimes”.

He joined the African National Congress overseas and when it was unbanned came back for a visit in 1990; he couldn’t come before as he would have been arrested for his work in the war resistance movement. He returned permanently in 1993, landing just a few weeks before Chris Han i was assassinated.

“I did question the move for a while. After seven years in London, I missed its cultural density, and Jo burg was quite a harsh place.” He worked in the then Northern Transvaal for the Independent Electoral Commission, which he describes as a “massive logistical challenge”.

Having worked for the consultants that were a conduit for Atlantic funding in SA, when they opened the local office in 2002, he was asked to head it.

Finding that the gay community is considered marginalised was surprising to me; we are a progressive democracy with a constitution that reflects this — surely gay men and women are just part of the general populace?

This, it transpires, is a common misconception.

“In 2002, the public profile of the gay community was mostly white and male,” Kraak says. “We needed to build the capacity of the sector to advocate for change in both its demography and the attitudes towards it.”

It was largely due to their work that the Civil Union Act came into being two years ago, as well as other rights for same-sex partnerships.

The formal rights for homosexuals are in place, but changing attitudes is a longer and more incremental process. Forming alliances so gay rights are seen as part of larger human rights is essential. This sounds so basic, but intolerance runs deep. Even from funders.

A lot of right-wing, conservative Christians in the US fund nongovernmental organisations in SA but, especially under the Republican regime, the funding often came with ideological and faith-based strings attached dictating what the organisation had to do and what to think.

Kraak says the only way to change attitudes is to engage with faith-based organisations. “Fortunately, the Anglican Church is progressive and we work a lot with Inner Circle, an Islamic gay group.”

Funding for this sector is often difficult to secure. Kraak alludes to a “residual homophobia”, but I can’t help thinking the corporate world is scared of losing conservative support so they avoid it; shame on them.

And, ironically, our all-encompassing constitution can be a stumbling block for overseas donors. “Atlantic, too, tends to see gay and lesbian communities in western terms, where they are usually middle- class and well-heeled. Ironically, so many of our constitutional advances tended to help the middle classes.”

Partnership and adoption rights presuppose a stable life, but the hatred and violence in the townships and rural areas “is a different world”.

“We’re working in ‘black’ areas which are, by definition, poor. The violence against black lesbians is horrendous and there is still terrible stigma and retaliation against gay men. It used to be about political rights; now it’s about human and socioeconomic rights.”

Political freedom, clearly, is a long way from social integration and bigotry still runs deep; fortunately, so do Chuck Feeney’s pockets.

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