Atlantic Philanthropies Spend-Down Brings Culture Change, Study Finds

A new report from the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University finds that the fourth and final phase of Atlantic Philanthropies' spend-down process has been characterized by a higher level of grantmaking, intensive human-resource planning, and "radical" culture change.

The report, Harvest Time for The Atlantic Philanthropies: 2012-2013: Decline & Rise (57 pages, PDF), documents the implementation by the foundation of a final initiative — one not envisioned when the foundation's board announced in 2002 that Atlantic would spend down its $7.5 billion endowment by 2016 — aimed at "catalyzing transformative, systemic change" in the fields and countries where the foundation has historically invested. Based on strategy papers, board minutes, and other documents; interviews with foundation staff, board members, and grantees; and grants data, the report found that the Global Opportunity and Leverage (GOAL) initiative, which was meant to introduce "a new way of thinking about the foundation's ultimate purpose," had exceeded its initial budget of $200 million over three years.

Indeed, the completion of regular grantmaking associated with existing programs in Bermuda, South Africa, and Vietnam in preparation for the initiative made 2013 one of the foundation's biggest grantmaking years ever — as well as one of its busiest, as staff worked with grantees and others to ensure continued funding for Atlantic grantees after the foundation closes its doors.

At the same time, managers at the foundation concerned about the stress many staff felt as the end of their employment drew near created a "roadmap" for each employee that spells out a projected end-of-service date, education and training benefits, career and financial counseling services, and career workshops and coaching options. Departing employees also will be invited to apply for "fellowships" that would pay all or a portion of their salary and benefits at another organization for up to a year, provided the organization's work is related to Atlantic's program objectives.

Challenges for managers and staff who remain include organizing and disseminating the troves of information the foundation has amassed — an effort that will require an overhaul of the Atlantic website and other digital communications to ensure that foundation's legacy online is more than a static repository.

"Having been in a similar role in two other significant philanthropies, I was attracted to Atlantic especially because it has been so purposeful in chronicling its final years in real time," said David J. Morse, Atlantic's chief communications officer. "Not because Atlantic wants to promote itself — that would be silly for an organization that's going out of business — but because we want the growing complement of limited life foundations and philanthropists considering 'giving while living' to understand and learn from the experience, challenges, highs and lows of ending, and what it means to end well."

"New Report Documents Radical Culture Change at Atlantic Philanthropies as It Prepares to Close Its Doors in 2016" Atlantic Philanthropies Press Release 07/29/2014.