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The Atlantic Philanthropies and Its Archives: Limited Life, Enduring Legacy

Resource type: News

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By Joanne Volpe Florino

Editors’ Note: Joanne Volpe Florino continues HistPhil’s forum on archives and knowledge management with a post detailing the archival strategy of The Atlantic Philanthropies.

The Carl A. Kroch Library at Cornell, the underground library where the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections is housed. Photo courtesy of the Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University.

This past December, The Atlantic Philanthropies made its final awards, becoming the largest limited life philanthropy to complete its grantmaking. The end of this aspect of its organizational life has been long-planned and purposeful – a fulfillment of donor Charles F. (“Chuck”) Feeney’s commitment to Giving While Living. Many of Atlantic’s final grants have been “big bets” designed to improve the lives of vulnerable people. The same bold spirit has informed Atlantic’s thinking about its legacy and, in particular, about the vast and diverse archival collection it leaves behind.

How does a foundation insure that its archive exists not simply as a static repository, but rather as a vibrant space that continues to “live” and be relevant, useful and influential long after its final grants are made? In Atlantic’s case, it’s a multi-step process that begins by asking, “How can we have influence as a foundation even when we’re no longer around to engage actively with our audience?”

Several years ago, Atlantic recognized that the anonymity of its first 15 years and then the one-grant-at-a-time communications pattern of the later years had failed to produce a brand that fully conveys Atlantic’s values and strategic decisions. To make the why and how of Atlantic as widely known as possible, Atlantic synthesized the ample raw material of 30-plus years of grantmaking across fields, philanthropic approaches, and geographies around the overarching themes of its work and made the resulting materials available to key audiences. Atlantic also devoted significant efforts to tell the story of its founder, Chuck Feeney, and his belief in Giving While Living—the idea that people of means should use their wealth now, and be deeply and personally engaged in their philanthropy—to achieve social good.

Some work along these lines had already been completed, including the chronicling of much of Atlantic’s later history by Tony Proscio of Duke University. That record is to be supplemented by additional publications, the first of which – Laying Foundations for Change: Capital Investments of The Atlantic Philanthropies – was published in 2014. Still to come are an “Insights” series on specific topics (e.g., limited life philanthropy, Giving While Living, partnering with government, effective advocacy, public interest litigation), a collection of books that detail Atlantic’s work in individual countries, and several videos.

Anticipating a shift in its audience during what Atlantic calls its “afterlife,” the organization has also transformed its digital platforms from straightforward information centers to sources of inspiration and influence. Where once its website was designed for grantees and the general public, Atlantic’s new site focuses on a target audience that includes emerging philanthropists and their advisers, funders, affinity groups, policymakers, media and others who might learn from and amplify the legacy of Atlantic Philanthropies and its grantees.

Answering the why and how questions about Atlantic’s work is sufficient for the present. The key challenge for a limited life foundation is to develop the strategies and partnerships to insure that audiences can access its written and electronic records well into the future in ways that not only continue, but also enhance, its legacy. That challenge led Atlantic Philanthropies to several critical decisions about where and how to establish its archives.

In the fall of 2015, president and CEO Christopher Oechsli announced that the foundation’s records would find their permanent home at Cornell University, where they would become part of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at the University Library. Atlantic’s reasons for the choice were both sentimental and strategic. “It is fitting that Atlantic’s archives should be based at Cornell,” remarked Oechsli at the time of the announcement. “It’s not simply that Cornell is our founder Chuck Feeney’s alma mater that provided him with the opportunity to launch successful enterprises, including The Atlantic Philanthropies; but also that Cornell’s library, where our archives will be based, is among the most digitally advanced in the world. Because we want Atlantic’s history and experience to be accessible, to inform, influence and inspire current funders, emerging philanthropists and the public, it’s critical that Atlantic’s records and data be readily available in digital form.”

Along with the gift of the archives, Atlantic awarded Cornell $4 million to support cataloging, digitization and outreach activities associated with a collection whose physical content alone approaches 2,000 cubic feet but which will also include the electronic records of a grantmaking program spanning 35 years and eight major geographic areas. Cornell Archives staff will facilitate direct, physical access to Atlantic content in Ithaca for researchers; curate and mine the most salient information from and about Atlantic; and promote storytelling with key selected audiences over the next decade. Over the next several years, Atlantic’s website and social media platforms will also be transferred to Cornell so that they can be refreshed with new material and continue to serve as important vehicles for sharing the Atlantic experience in the future.

While Cornell has considerable strengths as Atlantic’s archival home, the university cannot fill all functions as the sole interpreter and distributor of learning about the distinguishing characteristics of the organization – big bets, a sense of urgency that accompanies limited life, investing in and trusting people and their institutions, focus on impact and outcomes rather than inputs and process – nor can it be the only catalyst to encourage greater uptake of limited life philanthropy. To inform and influence key audiences, Atlantic awarded grants to four “active curation partners” who are undertaking a variety of information sharing, convening, and dissemination activities, individually and in partnership with each other and Cornell. These include the Bridgespan Group, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Fast Company, and the Digital Repository of Ireland, which will document and share the significant impact of Chuck Feeney and Atlantic across the island of Ireland. A fifth partner – the Columbia University Center for Oral History Research – began its efforts to chronicle the legacy of Chuck Feeney and The Atlantic Philanthropies over a decade ago. From the spring of 2005 through the summer of 2016, oral historians conducted 900 hours of interviews with 200 individuals associated with Feeney and Atlantic. This archive offers a unique and comprehensive record to be mined – in conjunction with documentary evidence –  to drive and share Atlantic’s impact and lessons after it closes its doors.

Atlantic understands the many challenges inherent in its plan to inform, inspire and have influence in its final years and in its “afterlife,” as the work of communications shifts over several years from internal staff to a constellation of active curation partners. Success depends on the timely processing of both paper and electronic records at Cornell, and on the development of compelling content among the curation partners, at a moment when Atlantic is intentionally putting itself out of business and losing, those staff members most familiar with the organization’s grantmaking and operations.

At Cornell, anticipation is building. Delivery of an expected 2,000 boxes of documents has begun, and processing staff arrives this month. Facilitating public access to the paper records and the diverse digital records to follow will involve many staff members of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections beyond those hired specifically for this project. Meanwhile, the first in-person meeting of all the active curation partners happened in November 2016. While each curation partner pursues its individual goals, and Atlantic begins to wind down its operations, their shared focus is on the final big questions: How do you reframe what is widely considered unique or unconventional behavior—devoting the virtual entirety of one’s financial resources to philanthropy—into something widely accepted and emulated? And how do you get to the right audiences and encourage others to consider Atlantic’s approaches, experiences and lessons to inform their own thinking and action?

Getting those answers right is the challenge for Atlantic and its partners as they embark on this shared endeavor to keep alive the legacy of Chuck Feeney and The Atlantic Philanthropies in ways that influence philanthropists and their work well into the future.

Joanne Volpe Florino is the project lead for The Atlantic Philanthropies Archives at Cornell University. Ms. Florino has worked in the philanthropic sector for over 30 years. Previously, she was senior vice president for public policy at The Philanthropy Roundtable, executive director of the Triad and Park Foundations in Ithaca, New York, and a program associate at Atlantic Philanthropies. She currently serves as a board member of the New York Council of Nonprofits and the Paleontological Research Institution. Ms. Florino earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Georgetown University and a master’s degree in American history from Cornell University.