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Harvest Time for the Atlantic Philanthropies: Reports Examine the Foundation’s Decisions and Lessons in Final Years

Resource type: Research Report

Tony Proscio, Duke University Center for Strategic Philanthropy & Civil Society |

When Atlantic commissioned philanthropy consultant Tony Proscio in 2010, in conjunction with Duke University Center for Strategic Philanthropy & Civil Society, to write a series of reports charting the foundation’s final years, it was the largest foundation planning to put all its charitable assets to use in a fixed period of time. These seven reports examine the major decisions behind Altlanitic’s concluding operations and culminating “big bets,” including the founding of the Atlantic Fellows Programs.

Duke Sanford School of Public Policy Logo and a photo of Tony Proscio Smiling, plus text that says Winding Down and Harvest Time for the Atlantic Philanthropies Reports by Tony Proscio

Winding Down the Atlantic Philanthropies

2001-2009: The First Eight Years

This first report addresses questions raised by Atlantic’s founder Charles F. Feeney when he decided to commit to Giving While Living and witness the benefits of his philanthropy during his lifetime, including how and where to invest and evaluate the progress of grants. Proscio highlights how a limited life approach presents new layers of complexity and an assortment of uncommon operational challenges that foundations that operate in perpetuity may not face.

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2009-2010: Beginning the End Game

The second report covers staff efforts to launch an orderly process to “imagine the end of Atlantic” and the decision-making behind two major programs: Children & Youth in the United States and Population Health in Viet Nam.

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Harvest Time for The Atlantic Philanthropies

2011-2012: Focus, Exit, and Legacy

This third report covers events some four to five years before Atlantic made its final grant commitments, including:

  • An intense 10-month strategic planning process to narrow its grantmaking focus and set a timetable for the foundation’s concluding period for each program and each country where it operates;
  • Staff concerns as the realities of the end of the foundation set in;
  • Human Resources’ plans to help employees prepare for their post-Atlantic careers and positive reactions to the release of an explicit policy on severance;
  • An examination into the issue of grantee sustainability, particularly in countries and programs where replacement funders are unlikely; and
  • In-depth case studies exploring Atlantic’s impact and the challenge of grantee sustainability in two focus areas: efforts to abolish the death penalty in the U.S. and to promote the rights of the rural poor in South Africa.

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2012-2013: Decline & Rise

The fourth report covers:

  • Decision to fundamentally change the foundation’s model for ending grant making;
  • Creation of a new phase of work called Global Opportunity and Leverage (GOAL) – a new way of thinking about the foundation’s ultimate purpose and how it would end;
  • Lessons from ending its core grant making in Viet Nam, South Africa, and Bermuda;
  • Planning and communications to employees about when their jobs would end, including instituting twice-yearly staff reductions; and
  • Exploration of Atlantic’s impact on and lessons learned from its work on school discipline policies in the U.S. and dementia care in the Republic of Ireland.

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2013-2014: Final Priorities

The fifth report chronicles:

  • Integrating and synthesizing the themes and accomplishments of Atlantic’s 30-plus years;
  • Culminating Global Opportunity and Leverage grants (known as GOAL) that aimed for significant, long-term effects in areas where the foundation had long been involved;
  • How the evaluation and communications teams developed plans to capture and share lessons from Atlantic’s experience and distribute them in multiple forms, through different media and for various audiences; and
  • Adjustments in foundation operations resulting from ongoing reductions in staff—from more than 120 full-time employees at Atlantic’s peak to 56 by the end of 2014.

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2014-2016: Finished, But Not Done 

This sixth report chronicles Atlantic’s plans to conclude its operations and its culminating “big bets” that seek to address 21st-century problems and produce lasting results in the fields and places where the foundation had long invested. Topics covered include:

  • Design and launch of the Atlantic Fellows program, an international, interconnected set of fellowship programs to empower emerging leaders to advance fairer, healthier, more inclusive societies.
  • The foundation’s “unprecedented push” to communicate lessons and principles learned over 35 years of grantmaking, particularly to inform the work of new and younger philanthropists;
  • Progress Atlantic made implementing plans to manage staff needs and transitions; and
  • How the foundation managed its “ever-dwindling” endowment to ensure it would be able to meet all outstanding obligations over coming years.

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2017-2019: Three Endings and a Beginning

The final installment of the “Harvest Time” series covers the events roughly one year before Atlantic completed its work and closed its doors, including:

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