The Atlantic Philanthropies Signs Off
Resource type: News
Christopher G. Oechsli, President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies |
Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our [grandchildren] are going to do things that would stagger us.
Attributed to Daniel H. Burnham, American architect and urban planner
Dear Friends and Colleagues of the Atlantic Philanthropies,
Yesterday, Atlantic founder Chuck Feeney signed the dissolution papers for the Atlantic Foundation, concluding 38 years of global philanthropic work. Many of you have been an integral part of that work and the communities associated with that work. I want to recognize this moment with gratitude for your contributions to advance our shared values and aspirations.
Concluding 38 Years of Giving While Living
In 1982, Chuck, with support from his family and advisers, established the Atlantic Foundation, which would later become known as the Atlantic Philanthropies. That year, the Foundation, acting anonymously as it would for the next 15 years, made its first grant of $7 million to establish the Cornell Tradition Fellows. It was a big bet in its time, a bet on young people with limited financial resources and a dedication to serving others.
In 1984, Chuck and his family irrevocably contributed the entire Feeney interest in the businesses he launched to the Atlantic Foundation. As a Bermuda foundation, Chuck and Atlantic’s business colleagues continued to grow its extensive international subsidiary businesses for charitable purposes while maintaining the family’s privacy and anonymity. In 1996, as major businesses were sold, grantmaking increased and anonymity became both a practical and ethical challenge, Chuck was (voluntarily) unmasked by the New York Times. His biographer and his subsequent chronicler at Forbes titled him, respectively, “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t” and “the James Bond of Philanthropy.” He became an inspiration for the Giving Pledge.
In 2002, Chuck and the leadership of the Atlantic Foundation, made the express decision to invest the foundation’s entire endowment and close our doors by the end of 2020. Over 38 years, in more than 25 countries, with the passionate efforts of directors and over 300 staff in seven countries, the Atlantic Philanthropies group dedicated itself and over $8 billion in more than 6,500 grants to support the people and organizations that would make a difference in the lives of others. Chuck is no longer anonymous. But many of you, our grantees and Atlantic’s staff, who advanced these efforts have labored in anonymity or with little public recognition. Chuck would say you and they are the heroes.
Chuck wanted wealth to be deployed soon, to make a difference soon, to encourage others to commit their wealth to help others soon. Almost ten years ago, Chuck wrote to Bill Gates:
“I also want now to add my own personal challenge and encouragement for Giving Pledge donors to fully engage in sustained philanthropic efforts during their lifetimes. I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living—to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition. More importantly, today’s needs are so great and varied that intelligent philanthropic support and positive interventions can have greater value and impact today than if they are delayed when the needs are greater. I urge those who are taking up the Giving Pledge example to invest substantially in philanthropic causes soon and not postpone their giving or personal engagement.”
Shortly after launching the Giving Pledge, Warren Buffet said: “Chuck has set an example . . . . [He] is my hero and Bill Gates’ hero. He should be everybody’s hero.” In writing about the venture’s financial trajectory, Steve Bertoni, Forbes magazine’s chronicler of Chuck’s work, coined the term for Atlantic’s ultimate goal: “Zero is the hero.”
The Need is Now. Why Wait?
Following Chuck’s lead and Giving While Living philosophy, we have sought to make a lasting impact but with a sense of urgency driven by a spend-to-impact rather than spend-to-budget approach. Why wait to address critical needs in any arena – health, social cohesion, the environment, aging populations, early childhood development, education, knowledge and innovation, democracy, human rights? Do we need to wait for the next pandemic to strengthen immunology or public health data, policies and systems? Do we need to delay investments in effective environmental policies, technologies and practices until future climate disasters? Should we wait for the next social upheavals before addressing longstanding structural inequities and racial, gender and socio-economic disparities?
‘It Always Comes Down to People’
We have come to the end of Atlantic’s life – to zero – as Chuck intended. It is not the end of the efforts and aspirations to improve the lives of others. Atlantic’s grantees, of which there are over 2,500, together with our funding partners and the people who led and populated their respective efforts, have their own legacies and ripples, even waves, of continuing influence and impact. We have concluded our grantmaking by supporting a global community of Atlantic Fellows – the current and next generations of leaders dedicated to accelerating fairer, healthier and more inclusive societies. It is our final big bet, a more than $740 million investment to advance the quest for our aspirations beyond the foundation’s existence. “In the end,” as Chuck has said, echoing his first big bet in the Cornell Tradition, “it always comes down to people.” The Atlantic Fellows are making big plans; aiming high in hope and work. We have no doubt that they, like so many of our grantees, “are going to do things that would stagger us.”
It has been an unparalleled privilege for all of us associated with Chuck and Atlantic to have participated in this endeavor. We have had the opportunity to work with and guide financial and other support to the many exceptionally skilled and dedicated people who have selflessly strived for and achieved improvements in the human condition. We have had the privilege of holding fascinating jobs with wonderful colleagues.
‘We Are Who We Are Because of Others’
We ask that you celebrate and support what our grantee colleagues have achieved and are working to achieve. Celebrate and pursue the possibilities to improve things as they are. Recognize the power and duty of privilege to respond intelligently, with empathy and with some sense of urgency to the myriad of human needs. Take note that change for the better is not only possible, it is our shared human imperative. The effort is worthy and deeply satisfying and besides, as Chuck says, “Giving while living is more fun than giving while dead.”
Atlantic’s grantees, their work and our experience and insights can be further explored on the Atlantic Philanthropies’ website, which will remain active until at least 2025, and in our archives at Cornell University. We hope you might find something there of interest and value and application in your work.
We are who we are because of others. On behalf of Chuck Feeney and the team at Atlantic Philanthropies, thank you for your work and support and for accompanying us on this journey.
Christopher G. Oechsli
(valid until 31 December 2020)