A Brief History of The Atlantic Philanthropies

Liz Welch
LIZ WELCH, author and journalist

Facilitating the peace process in Northern Ireland. Catalyzing the creation of knowledge economies in the Republic of Ireland and Australia. Hastening the end of the juvenile death penalty and reducing the number of children without health insurance in the United States. Securing lifesaving medication for millions in South Africa afflicted with HIV/AIDS. Improving public health and health care equity in Viet Nam. These are just a few of the major accomplishments that The Atlantic Philanthropies have helped achieve since Chuck Feeney founded the organization in 1982.

And yet, many close to Mr. Feeney say that he derives as much pleasure from far smaller achievements, such as witnessing a teenage girl beam when she goes online for the first time at one of the Atlantic-funded Learning Resource Centers in Viet Nam. Or seeing three young children from Hong Kong and Latin America in a joyous mood while learning Irish music at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. These moments, big and small, help explain why Atlantic’s Board of Directors decided to limit the life of the foundation, which will have committed to investing more than $7.5 billion by 2016. “I believe strongly in Giving While Living,” Mr. Feeney once said. “I see little reason to delay giving when so much good can be achieved through supporting worthwhile causes today.”

Born in 1931 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Mr. Feeney was the middle of three children, and the first of his Irish American family to go to university. He considered his college experience, at Cornell, his gateway to success: There he met Robert W. Miller, with whom he later co-founded Duty Free Shoppers (DFS), the company that made both men billionaires, and Harvey Dale, who went on to earn his law degree at Harvard and to provide legal counsel to DFS. “By the mid-1970s, the DFS partners were each taking a profit of a couple hundred million dollars annually,” Mr. Dale recalls. “Chuck had homes in Paris, Hawaii, Connecticut, New York; but it became increasingly clear that he was uncomfortable with the lavishness of it all. He just didn’t like it.” Mr. Feeney read Andrew Carnegie’s famous essay, “Wealth,” which argued that the best way to use one’s wealth was to help others. “After thousands of hours of conversation, Chuck decided he wanted to start putting his money toward philanthropy,” Mr. Dale recalls. There was one catch, however: Mr. Feeney wanted the giving to be anonymous. It had given his company a competitive advantage, allowing it to investigate opportunities under the radar, and he felt it would give Atlantic’s philanthropy an advantage, too. “The desire for anonymity was a combination of Chuck’s humility and a desire to be flexible,” says Christopher G. Oechsli, Atlantic’s president and CEO since 2011. “He thought accolades and responding to the inevitable requests for funds would get in the way and wouldn’t allow him to do what he wanted to do—meet people, talk, learn and act without attracting a lot of attention.”

Atlantic’s grantmaking throughout the 1980s and 1990s was driven by this ability to operate nimbly and in secret. Most of the early grants began with Mr. Feeney visiting a place, meeting an educator, a researcher, a physician or an artist and then sending a check. “Retaining anonymity allowed him to do these things without the dog-and-pony shows,” Mr. Oechsli says. “It allowed him to be much more effective.” It also presented a challenge: Being anonymous made asking for outside advice impossible. Instead, Mr. Feeney and Mr. Dale had to figure out how to build a philanthropic organization on their own—which included moving Mr. Feeney’s family to Bermuda to establish residency, as United States laws made anonymity impossible.

After two years of making mostly small grants, Mr. Feeney and his family were sure of the decision to devote their wealth to philanthropy, and the DFS shares—then conservatively valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars—were irrevocably transferred to Atlantic in 1984. Cornell, which had given Mr. Feeney so many early opportunities, had received a number of initial grants, but with bigger coffers, he started looking for investment opportunities in other countries: first in the Republic of Ireland, then Northern Ireland, Viet Nam, Australia and South Africa. The first four were places he had visited through his business dealings and that he felt shared a similar underdog quality—places that were being overlooked and therefore promised strong returns on Atlantic’s philanthropic investments. South Africa shared those qualities too, but it was included in the Atlantic family primarily due to Mr. Dale’s interest in supporting the country’s new constitution, including by promoting black lawyers to advance the rights enumerated within that progressive document.

Atlantic established an office in New York to assist in its charitable giving, and Mr. Dale, who was the foundation’s president from 1982 to 2001, worked on building a small staff, which would become another important piece of Atlantic’s story. Both Mr. Dale and Mr. Feeney knew they would need deeply knowledgeable and trustworthy people to find worthy projects for Atlantic grants, especially given the organization’s anonymity. “One of Atlantic’s greatest legacies will be our staff,” Mr. Dale points out. They were the ones on the ground, actively looking for grantees, as anonymity meant no institutions or organizations could apply for grants. Mr. Dale, at that point, was teaching law at New York University, acting as counsel to a law firm and running an anonymous organization that sought out its grantees instead of having them apply for support. “I told the dean of the law school and swore him to secrecy,” Mr. Dale recalls. “And I suggested teaching nonprofit law, which provided a good cover.” That led to the formation of NYU’s National Center on Philanthropy and the Law, which gave Mr. Dale the ability to talk to presidents of foundations about how to run a philanthropic organization.

During Atlantic’s first two decades, the foundation focused its grantmaking on strengthening higher education, particularly university systems. Having started with Cornell, Atlantic used the experience as a prototype and catalyst, specifically to re-envision and recast university systems in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to help foster knowledge- building and economic growth there. Ideas for early grants were almost always sparked by a dynamic person who Mr. Feeney felt could make extraordinary progress with Atlantic’s financial support. In Ireland, that included Ed Walsh, then the president of the fledgling University of Limerick. Mr. Feeney, always an entrepreneur, saw the right ingredients in Limerick for an Atlantic investment: A stellar leader and an undervalued environment usually meant a ripe opportunity. Not long after meeting Mr. Feeney, Dr. Walsh met in Ithaca with Cornell’s president, Frank Rhodes, who then flew to Limerick to offer advice as to how best to grow the university. With Atlantic’s support, Limerick thrived and grew from 735 students in 1988 to in excess of 14,000 students in the 2013–14 academic year. And Dr. Walsh would eventually find himself on another airplane, this time to Viet Nam, to inform Atlantic’s grantmaking there. “One of Chuck’s gifts is he invites other people into his thinking,” Mr. Oechsli says. “He likes to tie together relationships and then explore whether there is value in connecting them organically.”

Interconnection and cross-pollination are trademarks of Atlantic’s grantmaking: Grantees are encouraged to collaborate; ideas are exported; and similar types of projects—libraries/learning resource centers, pediatric and eye hospitals, athletic centers or translational research centers—are funded in its various regions. Cross-fertilization also means that strategies—such as the use of large grants to leverage matching funding from government, which was pioneered in the Republic of Ireland and then exported to Northern Ireland, Australia, South Africa and Viet Nam—can be advocated and replicated successfully on the basis of tested models.

But the largely intuitive, relationship-driven approach to making large grants would soon start to shift, as would the focus on capital giving. In 1996, Mr. Feeney sold his DFS stake to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), and the foundation suddenly had an enormous influx of cash. A disagreement with Mr. Miller about the LVMH deal was heading to court, which meant Mr. Feeney’s secret would ultimately be revealed. In a preemptive strike, he called The New York Times and on January 23, 1997, the newspaper ran a story entitled “He Gave Away $600 Million and No One Knew.” That changed Atlantic forever.

Reflecting the organization’s increasingly international grantmaking, John R. Healy, then head of Atlantic’s Dublin office, became the foundation’s new president and CEO in 2001. Atlantic has maintained its practice of selecting grantees instead of considering requests from applicants, but Mr. Healy’s approach to the process was more formal and proscribed than Mr. Feeney’s, says Mr. Oechsli. It was also necessary for the foundation’s next phase: Atlantic’s Board of Directors announced in 2002 that Atlantic would be a limited-life organization that would complete grantmaking by 2016 and close its doors by 2020. Atlantic had invested $2.5 billion at the time of the 2002 announcement and had a remaining estimated endowment of $3.5 billion—which meant the organization would have to increase the pace of grantmaking. To do this in a systematic and organized way, Atlantic’s Board of Directors established four categories of foundation initiatives—aging, disadvantaged children and youth, population health, and reconciliation and human rights—and formalized the Founding Chairman Program, which provided for Mr. Feeney to continue doing what he loved: identifying and recommending “big bet” projects.

The themes selected for the programs had their roots in Mr. Feeney’s personal interests, but the process became less of an “informed intuition” approach, Mr. Oechsli says, and more structured, with funding decisions reviewed and made by the Board, informed by logic models, theories of change, and recommendations from an experienced team of staff members who had been recruited from the regions in which Atlantic operated. “The challenge for Chuck and this organization has been a productive, dynamic tension between being flexible, opportunistic and intuitive on the one hand, and disciplined, focused and strategic on the other,” Mr. Oechsli says.

The next decade saw a smaller percentage of capital grants, and more money put toward programming, as researched and recommended by regional program directors and their teams. But the goal remained the same: to advance opportunity and lasting change for those unfairly disadvantaged or vulnerable to life’s circumstances. Work by grantees on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) rights in the Republic of Ireland, for instance, led to the passage of a landmark 2010 civil partnership law and a public referendum on civil marriage that is scheduled for 2015. A focus on gender equity in South Africa helped overturn the Communal Land Rights Act in 2010, enabling more than 16 million rural women to own property. A commitment to restoring dignity to aging in the United States resulted in the recovery of $7.9 billion in unclaimed low-income benefits that were due to 1.6 million older adults. Mr. Feeney remained engaged as a member of the Atlantic Board and through the Founding Chairman Program, which allowed him to have direct impact and continue his quest for big opportunities. “It was a growth issue,” Mr. Oechsli says. “The challenge was, when you can no longer have direct engagement in everything that’s going on, what’s a good approach? Chuck was searching for that answer.”

Mr. Feeney and the rest of the Board decided that part of their new approach would be to let the world know about the work Atlantic was doing, in an effort to encourage others of significant wealth to engage in major philanthropic pursuits in their lifetimes. In 2011, Mr. Feeney signed the Giving Pledge, which its founders, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, all agree was inspired by Mr. Feeney’s philanthropy. “He was ambivalent,” explains Mr. Oechsli. “Chuck is not a joiner. He takes real pleasure in doing, not talking about it.” But he hoped his involvement and example would inspire others to follow suit and to consider Giving While Living. In his pledge, Mr. Feeney wrote, “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.”

Then, in 2012, the generally reclusive and media-shy founder, whose name does not adorn a single building or program he funded, accepted three prestigious awards, including the first and only honorary doctorate of laws degree from all nine universities in Ireland, North and South; the Republic of Ireland’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award for Irish Abroad; and the University of California, San Francisco’s UCSF Medal, which acknowledges contributions to the university’s mission of advancing health worldwide.

By the end of 2013, Atlantic had made $6.5 billion in total grants, including a $350 million grant to Cornell to fund phase one of the university’s NYC Tech campus on Roosevelt Island. The largest single donation in Atlantic’s and Cornell’s history, this grant represents the kind of big bet Mr. Feeney has championed over the years, and had all the right components to inspire him: Cornell would receive the chance to create a world-class facility that combines academic innovation with applied research and practical applications,and that provides a forum for thinkers from different fields to connect and challenge one another’s ideas and theories.

The campus would support New York City’s push to establish its own Silicon Valley on a piece of land that, like Mission Bay in San Francisco and Da Nang in Viet Nam, is centrally located but had been long-neglected. The grant would reverberate beyond the students who study and faculty who teach on the campus and invigorate a local economy and impact a global one.

All these developments would be equally thrilling to Mr. Feeney, who has often said that he wants to devote every last Atlantic dollar to creating opportunities, and would like his last check to bounce. While that is unlikely, his intent is clear: Mr. Feeney wants to invest the last penny on organizations that will continue to have impact.

Roosevelt Island, and other late, large-scale projects like the University of California, San Francisco’s Mission Bay Campus, also bring Atlantic’s philanthropic giving full circle: The foundation started by making capital investments, and is now ending with ones on an even larger scale that reflect the original vision but incorporate all the lessons learned along the way. These late grants are both intuitive and rigorously planned; they fund buildings that provide homes for the kind of progressive programming Atlantic has championed, while attempting to create a sustainable economic model that will allow the work to continue long after Atlantic shuts its doors. They build the foundations for change.

Mr. Feeney was 51 when he founded Atlantic, and he has said that he is glad he started the philanthropic process early. “It’s a lot of work to start a giving program,” he explained. “It doesn’t happen overnight. If you want to give it away, think about giving it away while you are alive because you’ll get a lot more satisfaction than if you wait until you are dead. Besides, it is a lot more fun.”

— LIZ WELCH, author and journalist