Spending Down, Atlantic Philanthropies to Share Lessons Learned

With $1 billion left to spend before it closes its doors in 2016, Atlantic Philanthropies is planning to award even larger grants and fellowships than it has in the past and to share the lessons it has learned in the process of giving away $7.5 billion over more than thirty years, the New York Times reports.

Established in 1982 by Chuck Feeney, a co-founder of Duty Free Shoppers, the foundation has been active over its lifespan in the areas of aging, children and youth, higher education, population and health, and reconciliation and human rights. It also was once famously secretive, going to great lengths to conceal its identity from the recipients of its grants. Today, in contrast, the foundation is working to preserve its legacy by, among other things, creating a catalog of its work and documenting its failures in the form of a "top ten" list of missteps so that other foundations can learn from its mistakes.

One such misstep, according to Atlantic president and CEO Christopher G. Oechsli, involved giving too much for infrastructure projects in Vietnam when there wasn't a large and affluent enough population in that country to take advantage of the projects. The foundation also funded the Center for Public Inquiry in Ireland, which was set up as a government watchdog but subsequently closed after allegations of improprieties were leveled against its director. And Oechsli said he regretted not giving more money to Encore.org, which promotes second careers with a social purpose. "Civic engagement of elders — it's a field Atlantic Philanthropies has pioneered. We were a large funder and then we kind of dropped it. We left value on the table," he told the Times. "This whole notion of limited life does concentrate the mind. It introduces a dimension of urgency."

According to the Times, the notion among high-net-worth donors of "giving while living" is growing in popularity; spend-down foundations accounted for only 5 percent of all foundations fifty years ago, but in 2010 they made up 24 percent. Warren Buffett has said that Feeney, who announced in 2002 that he would spend down his foundation's assets by 2016, was his and Bill Gates' hero for the way he determinedly set out to use his wealth to help other people during his lifetime. In 2013, Gates announced that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest philanthropy in the world, would spend down its endowment twenty years after he and his wife died. Feeney is a signatory to the Giving Pledge campaign launched by Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in 2010.

"We're seeing a trend where more and more people are starting to think about what impact and effect they can have in their lifetimes," said Jamie Jaffee, managing director of the Philanthropic Initiative. "They're feeling more of a sense of urgency to take more immediate actions. They’re used to running their businesses, having real influence and seeing results."

Still, even as Atlantic nears its end, Oechsli is not finding the job of running a major foundation any easier. "I wake up some mornings and think it would be nice to cut ten checks and be done with it," he said. "But that's not the best use of money. We have hundreds of millions of dollars to try to make a difference. You need to think really hard about doing it."

Paul Sullivan. "A Billion Still to Spend, and Only Two Years to Do It." New York Times 10/31/2014.