Skip to main content

Social Justice: A Guiding Vision for Atlantic’s Final Chapter

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

All healthy institutions must from time to time take a look at what they are doing to see what’s working and what isn’t, to re-examine assumptions in light of changes in the environment – political, social, economic and philanthropic – and make any necessary adjustments. In Atlantic’s case, since we are spending down our assets and closing our doors before the next decade is out, this task is even more urgent and important.

Like almost all foundations, Atlantic operates on the basis of a mission statement, sketched out by our founder, Charles Feeney. Both broad and succinct, it reads: “Dedicated to bringing about lasting changes in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people.”

A lot is implied in those fourteen words. By “lasting” we mean well beyond the foundation’s own life. With “change,” we assert that the status quo is unacceptable. By “lives,” we mean all of them, not some or isolated parts. With “disadvantaged,” we mean those lacking access to what is necessary to achieve much of the good, and even the essential, in life. And by “vulnerable,” we mean those who are subject to prey by stronger and less benign forces.

In recent years, Atlantic has made grants to carry out this mission through four programme areas: Ageing, Children & Youth, Population Health and Reconciliation & Human Rights. Each of these programmes had highly detailed strategic objectives with measurable, deliverable outcomes. Many of these are on track, and much good has been accomplished so far. Yet we also lacked connective tissue that could make this work fully coherent and most effective.

Between our mission statement and our programme objectives, we said little about what knit together our disparate programmes, why we had made our choices from among an array of options, what guided our thinking and what constituted enduring achievements as opposed to ephemeral gains. While no single “theory of change,” however compelling or fashionable, can do this, we believed it was important to fill in this missing piece and explain our view of the world and our work.

We’ve come to believe that what captures and unites our work best is the notion of social justice.

Social justice is woven into the fabric of many organisations trying to effect change, whether or not they embrace the term. It is an unspoken objective for many foundations’ programmes and implicit in many of the problems they seek to address, from poverty and education to peace and environmental degradation.

Social justice has long been at the core of much of Atlantic’s funding. It was central to our support for integrated schools in Northern Ireland, which bring Catholic and Protestant children together to learn; our work in Viet Nam to extend health care to the most disadvantaged and poor by developing commune health clinics in rural communities where ethnic communities live; and our support for the fearless and lifesaving Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, which fights for increased access to treatment, care and support for people with HIV/AIDS and conducts awareness campaigns to reduce new HIV infections.

Social justice was also at the core of Chuck Feeney’s support for the University of Limerick, which strengthened higher education in that hardscrabble city in the west of Ireland, and to the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, which opened the doors of access to black Africans and others who were traditionally shut out of higher education.

The recognition and pursuit of social justice helped us connect our past and current work, but more importantly it has clarified what we aim to achieve in the future. By looking at our grantmaking through the lens of social justice, we have sharpened our focus for Atlantic’s remaining decade.

While our programme areas remain the same, we’ve refined our objectives. As we did earlier, we focus on the people who are most disadvantaged. But we are now also working to address why those groups of people are disadvantaged – by their economic situation, race, nationality, gender, age, disabilities, immigration status, sexual orientation, political affiliation or religion. Without a clear understanding and analysis of what is getting in the way of change, it is hard to make a lasting impact. We believe we can best do that by:

  • Taking account of the root causes of social injustice
  • Focusing on advocacy for change rather than filling gaps in services
  • Funding efforts to challenge policies and institutions that systematically exclude or disadvantage people
  • Building on the strengths of individuals, organisations, communities and movements to advocate on their own behalf and on behalf of others
  • Supporting institutions and investing in leaders who can work for progressive change over decades
  • Working in partnership with government, whenever it can advance our goals and those of the organisations we support

Since actions are often louder, and clearer, than words, Atlantic’s strengthened commitment to social justice may best be seen through several grants approved at our most recent Board meeting last month. They include support to:

  • Elev8 – an initiative that supports middle-school students in Chicago, New Mexico, Oakland and Baltimore that brings parents, communities and schools together to advocate for policy change that will benefit all children regardless of their income or background. To watch a short film on the initiative, click here
  • The Council for the Protection and Advancement of the Constitution – a citizen’s movement to protect the South African constitution from potential attack, a bulwark for freedom and equality not just in South Africa, but around the world
  • The Suffolk and Lenadoon Interface Group – a joint grant of our Reconciliation & Human Rights and Children & Youth programmes in Northern Ireland to support local peace building initiatives between the Protestant Suffolk and the Catholic Lenadoon communities in West Belfast
  • Health Care for America Now! – the largest health care campaign in American history – led by a broad coalition of more than 1,000 organisations in 46 states. The campaign is playing a crucial role in the most serious and sustained effort to ensure affordable health care coverage for everyone, a goal which has eluded U.S. Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt
  • Campaign for Better Care – a complementary campaign in the United States focused on better, more coordinated and less expensive health care for vulnerable older adults with chronic conditions

These grants are but a few examples to illustrate Atlantic’s belief that social justice can best be achieved by empowering, to borrow a good and simple phrase from my colleague Martin O’Brien, “those who need change the most”.

Our grantmaking is rooted in the pursuit of social justice because, in a sense, our work must begin at the end. We start, as our grantees do, with the vision of the world we want to live in, and then figure out how to get there. We see a world in which peace prevails over histories of conflict. It is a world in which respect for human rights is the basis of policy, not expendable in a crisis. It is a world in which democratic participation and meaningful civic engagement is the norm, and in which the most vulnerable are viewed as most deserving of public support.

Admittedly, these are lofty goals and Atlantic and the organisations it supports will not see them realised in Atlantic’s short lifetime. But we and they will intensify our focus on the kind of change we all seek, employing well-considered strategies that are the surest and most direct route to achieving lasting social change. We look forward, in the coming years in which we deploy our remaining assets towards these goals, to working with you to ensure that those who “need change the most” have the tools and resources to change their lives and the world we strive for.

Gara LaMarche

Related Resources




Atlantic Currents, Chuck Feeney, Foundations, social justice