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The Crucial Role of Philanthropy in the Republic of Ireland

Resource type: Speech

Colin McCrea |

The Republic of Ireland needs more philanthropists, who in turn can make a lasting difference in their country, said Colin McCrea, Senior Vice President at The Atlantic Philanthropies, in this speech at the Dublin City University Leadership Circle Dinner.


Ladies and Gentlemen, President Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Chairman Mr. Brian Hayes, Board of Trustees, Good Evening.

It gives me great pleasure to address you this evening on behalf of The Atlantic Philanthropies, here in DCU, at the 2009 Leadership Circle Dinner Awards. As you know these awards distinguish a member of the DCU staff, a corporate body /organization and an individual with awards for leadership.

I feel I should come clean from the outset – part of my agenda here this evening is to encourage you to continue and to increase your philanthropic efforts into the future.

Atlantic is a large philanthropic foundation which has been operating in Ireland since 1990. Since then, Atlantic has been able to support exciting and innovative organizations and people.

Atlantic is a spend-down foundation. This means that by 2016, when we will close our doors, we will have spent all of our remaining money ($3b) in our four programme areas – Ageing, Reconciliation and Human Rights, Children & Youth and in developing countries Population Health. We operate in seven countries.

We have concerns for the sustainability of the organisations and programmes we have supported. Part of our work now, for our remaining years, is to encourage more philanthropy in Ireland so that they can continue after we’ve gone.

Just to give you some background about Chuck Feeney and Atlantic:

  • Chuck grew up in an Irish American neighborhood in New Jersey. Following a stint in the US air force during the Korean War, he got a GI scholarship to Cornell University. That experience made an enormous difference to his whole life.
  • He tried various enterprises and eventually set up a duty free operation which became very successful and made him enormously wealthy.
  • While he liked the buzz of business deals he wasn’t doing it to accumulate wealth. I’d say he was suspicious of wealth and what it can do to you and how it can affect your life.
  • In the early ‘80s , after looking after his family, he gave away practically all his wealth irrevocably to set up Atlantic Philanthropies. That isn’t just a selfless act, although it was probably the greatest act of charity in the 20th Century, because he gets endless fulfillment from putting his money to good use.
  • He is a fairly ordinary guy, does ordinary things, not a recluse but lives a fairly frugal existence because that’s what he wants. It’s not something he feels he has to do.
  • When we set up in Ireland, we set out to address an issue of real concern for Irish society that might have a long term impact on the country. Chuck believed that Ireland needed to become a knowledge economy to compete.
  • He wanted to play his part in building a better future for Irish society, which is why he concentrated on universities, where he believed long term impact was possible, and Ireland, then as now, was blessed with some excellent heads of universities.
  • There is a little known secret – that philanthropists keep to themselves – that is you need really good people to give your money to. Here at DCU he found excellent people to work with, initially Danny O’Hare and subsequently with Ferdinand von Prondzynski, great leaders both.
  • In their time at the helm, DCU has developed into a world class scientific research university. It has re-positioned itself around themes and a host of fresh, innovative ideas about how to best develop third and fourth level education.
  • Since 1990, Atlantic has invested more than $1 billion in higher education and research in Ireland.
  • University education is a key part in realising the potential for the whole of Irish society. Again DCU was at the forefront. The DCU Access Programme – celebrating its 20th Anniversary later this year – is a great example of how to break down the systemic barriers that make it difficult for young people from certain areas of society to access university education.
  • From small beginnings the programme has grown to be the largest and most successful third level scholarship programme in Ireland, with over 450 students. The neighborhoods throughout North Dublin, where the initiative began, continue to represent the core of Scholarship intake. Families with no previous history of attending university have now created a new history, their very own legacy as older siblings pave the way for their younger brothers and sisters to access University education. You are the people who can sustain this vital and life-changing programme through your own individual philanthropy.

I’d like to talk a little bit about the role of philanthropy:

What is philanthropy anyway?

  • To promote a pluralist society?
  • Make wealthy people feel good?
  • Take risks the government can’t take?
  • Substitute for government funding at this time?

It is probably some but not all of those four things. It’s certainly not a substitution for government funding.

The best philanthropy I know is about creating change to better society. It’s about:

  • Righting wrongs
  • Giving opportunities to those who don’t have them
  • About having impact. Changing the world to make it a better place.

In order for philanthropy to grow in Ireland it needs strong government support.

There is both good news and bad news in relation to the governments role in the development of philanthropy in Ireland.

  • The government strongly supports NGOs at the moment with 60% of their funding coming from government.
  • But, Government is still suspicious of the role of philanthropy and this is holding back its development. There are contradictions here, for example, it set up the Forum on Philanthropy precisely to promote philanthropy and yet is lukewarm in its promotion. It has not come to terms I believe with the positive role philanthropy can play in the type of social democracy that we practice here, where there is a tendency to believe that it is the responsibility of the state to provide services.

Let’s take a look at Foundation Giving Both Individual and Corporate.

  • Only 26 grant-making foundations in Ireland. The UK in comparison has 9,000. We could increase our figure tenfold and still not match their per capita strength.
  • A more worrying aspect……..€83 m given in 2007 but 85% came from three limited life foundations. If the situation does not change only €13 million or 15% would be given out by the remaining 23 foundations when these three foundations close.
  • Corporate foundation giving amounts to only 1% of NGO income in Ireland (UK 4 or 5%)

As a general rule, when it comes to public giving:

  • 90% of adults give but only a small amount per person on average
  • 12% give in a planned – by way of standing order (UK 35%) so there is an over reliance on volatile street collections. That is no basis to plan for their future.

What are the challenges to the expansion of philanthropy and also what are the opportunities to bring Ireland up to the international norm of philanthropy?


  • Structural, e.g. Lack of familiarity of wealth advisors on the area of philanthropy
  • Cultural , e.g. lack of a history of philanthropy here
  • Information deficits

Are there opportunities

  • Still many wealthy; 5 billionaires; top 10 have €15b; the 250th has €35m.
  • Mostly new wealthy. They are the best philanthropists because they want results and are the best at getting them.
  • Room to grow – starting from a low base

Don’t just take my word for it….

McKinsey Survey on Philanthropy in Ireland

  • The as yet unpublished report concluded:
  • The level of foundation giving could double to €160m within 5 years
  • Corporate funding could increase substantially from its low base.
  • Public giving could increase in the amount and by way of planned giving

To some extent tonight, I’m preaching to the converted. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t already leaders and philanthropists. You are already proponents of Chuck Feeney’s philosophy of Giving While Living.

The impact of philanthropy through education can be huge. In Atlantic we give small grants as well as large ones. We know that powerful results can be had with small amounts of money and carefully chosen ideas.

Atlantic is not necessarily a good role model because of our size. It can give the impression that only large donations can make a difference. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. The future of philanthropy will be in the establishment of new, small and medium-sized philanthropic organisations.

DCU today would be a poorer place were it not for the enthusiastic and constant support of donors such as yourselves. Your investment, whether €1,000 or €100,000 already has impact. And it will continue to have impact through those educated in DCU. The wonderful thing about giving to educational purposes is that it has a positive impact on so many levels of society.

Let’s just pause for a moment and reflect. For you to think of yourself not just as a giver and philanthropist, but as a leader, an influencer, part of the creation of the culture of philanthropy in Ireland. A very simple idea – if each person here convinced one other person to become a philanthropist, the impact would be significant.

John F. Kennedy once said, ‘Things do not happen – they are made to happen’. YOU can make things happen. I would like to congratulate you on your achievements, on your generosity and your foresight, in identifying DCU, a great institution to give to. And I would urge you, each of you, to continue making firm, visible footprints for others to follow.

Related Resources

Global Impact:

Republic of Ireland


Colin McCrea, Giving While Living