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The Strengthening of Atlantic’s Social Justice Mission: What It Means for Our Funding

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

Atlantic Currents logoI’ve just returned from Denver, Colorado, where the annual conference of the Council on Foundations ended Tuesday.  A significant theme of the conference this year, which Atlantic helped to organise, was what foundations can do to advance social justice.  I was honoured to moderate a panel of global activists and philanthropic leaders addressing this subject, which included Atlantic grantees Avila Kilmurray of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, Constance Rice of the Advancement Project, and Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change.

I’m happy to report that in strengthening our focus on social justice, Atlantic is part of an encouraging trend.  Colleague foundations, including the Ford Foundation and the Surdna Foundation, have recently completed reviews of their mission and strategies, as we have, and put a sharper emphasis on social justice.  Key nonprofit-sector institutions are also leading the way.  Helped in part by a recent Atlantic grant, the Foundation Center is increasingly making social justice a priority in its research and data collection and training efforts, serving as a resource to social justice grantmakers, civil society organisations and watchdog groups like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

Last year I wrote a column about the social justice lens Atlantic had applied to its work.  It is a framework for everything we do, asking questions of organisations and initiatives like:

  • Does it take account of the root causes of social injustice?
  • Does it focus on advocacy for enduring change, not just filling gaps in services?
  • Does it build on the strengths of individuals, organisations, communities and movements to advocate on their own behalf?
  • Does it invest in institutions and leaders who will work for social justice change over decades?
  • Does it work in partnership with government when it can advance these goals?

In keeping with the Giving While Living philosophy of our founder, Chuck Feeney, Atlantic is committed to spending its entire endowment and closing its doors by 2020.  Since we want to be as focused as possible in our remaining years – and our spend-down plan calls for the end of new grantmaking in less than seven years – we reviewed our strategies against this social justice framework and made some refinements.

In the last year we have taken a look at our four programme areas – Ageing, Children & Youth, Population Health and Reconciliation & Human Rights  –  in all of the countries in which we work, from Bermuda to Viet Nam.  Those who have been Atlantic grantees, or who want to get a better sense of how they might obtain Atlantic support, understandably want to know what this means for them.

The strategies for each of our programmes and the countries where we work are articulated on our Website and I encourage you to click through these links to learn more, but let me give you a few examples of how our strategies have shifted.

The Ageing Programme, which operates in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United States, has made a priority of improving the health and economic security of older adults by strengthening their capacity for voice and social action.  One example of that commitment in the United States is our support for the recently launched Campaign for Better Care, which seeks to mobilise and engage patients and families to fight for the care they want and need, and to bring the voice of the consumer to policy debates over health-care reform and how to implement any new legislation.  With this new strategic focus, the programme will not make any new grants in palliative care, lifelong learning, volunteerism and health professions education.

The Children & Youth Programme in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United States has sharpened its strategic focus to address the disparities in opportunities and supports available to children, particularly those who are disadvantaged due to income, race, gender or sexual orientation.  In all three geographies, the programme aims to create an enduring advocacy capacity for children and youth by supporting a lasting network of organisations to advocate for children.  In the U.S., building on the strength of our Elev8 initiative in Oakland, Chicago, Baltimore and New Mexico, which brings together schools, families and the community in underserved neighbourhoods to ensure that students succeed in school and life, we have intensified our grantmaking to support advocacy efforts that promote policies and practices to ensure children’s access to health care.  A key focus of this effort will be to increase the enrolment of children into the health insurance programmes for which they are eligible.  A new area for us, which will be the subject of a future column, is the reform of school discipline policies.  The growing trend toward harsh “zero-tolerance” discipline practices not only does little to make schools safer, but puts large numbers of young people of colour in a pernicious school-to-prison pipeline.

Recognising that human rights problems will exist long beyond Atlantic’s lifetime, our Reconciliation & Human Rights Programme has focused on strengthening the infrastructure to protect human rights in the countries where it operates: the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, South Africa and the United States.  In South Africa, for example, we have supported a coalition of key organisations around a shared objective of defending the Constitution in the wake of recent challenges to judicial independence.

In Bermuda, our Programme Executive Myra Virgil led a review of our efforts, resulting in a stronger focus on structural inequalities and income disparities, with some initial grants to strengthen broad-based, constituency-led social justice organisations that can navigate service, policy and legislative issues.  Our Bermuda strategy now supports groups like Youth on the Move to gather better data on how the criminal justice system criminalises at-risk young people and to build their capacity for advocating legislative change.

Because we believe that access to quality health care is a fundamental right, our Population Health Programme, which operates in South Africa and Viet Nam, refined its strategies to improve health and health care for all, with particular attention to vulnerable populations.  In Viet Nam, for instance,  our work is focusing more on underserved populations like the 53 ethnic minority groups, and groups that have lacked the resources to advocate on their own behalf, such as rural populations, the urban poor, older adults, children and people with mental illness and physical disabilities.

Finally, as we begin the last seven years of active grantmaking, Atlantic has strengthened its capacity to advance social justice across programme lines, setting up cross-programme working groups in most of our geographies and devoting dedicated grant funds to institutions, initiatives and movements that don’t fit in the issue silos that we and most funders have set up.  In the U.S., we are focusing on movement-building, leadership development and more intensive involvement in certain states.  In the Republic of Ireland, we’ve identified gaps in supporting infrastructure for social justice, such as budget analysis and public-policy thinking and strategy.

At Atlantic, we believe that change is best brought about by the people who need change the most, and the new strategies I’ve outlined reflect our efforts to support this belief.  As Ageing Programme Director Sharon King recently wrote in a letter to U.S. grantees about her programme’s strategic changes, Atlantic’s “social justice framework calls for engaging those on whose behalf we work, advocating ‘with,’ not just ‘for’” them.


You may notice that this column has a new look and feel.  It’s part of Atlantic’s overall Website redesign, which just launched this week.  By clicking the links throughout this column, you can learn more about the programmes I’ve discussed, the grantees we support, and the countries where we operate.  Our new Website also explains our approach to social justice philanthropy and shares what we’re learning.  The site is also filled with new features like “Recommended” links,  and a Twitter feed that pulls  “tweets” about our issues in real time.  I hope you’ll spend some time checking out the site and, as always, I encourage you to let me know what you think.

Gara LaMarche

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