Many Foundations Haven’t Discussed Atlantic-Style Spend-Down

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Above: George Soros. Photo by Norway UN via Flickr.

August 7, 2012; Source: New York Times

A recent New York Times profile of Atlantic Philanthropies founder Charles F. Feeney provides a glimpse of the mindset of a philanthropic leader who is set to close—in five years—one of the largest granting organizations in the U.S. Whether or not Feeney’s (age 81) high level of engagement in his organization’s spend down is or is not reflective of a broader philanthropic trend, his views on the value of wealth are notable and have already left a mark.

Having already given $6 billion through five program areas and seven regions of the world, the Atlantic Philanthropies now has $1.5 billion remaining to allocate before 2016—the equivalent of giving $2 million away each working day. As an overview of the foundation’s overall impact, the Times explains, “By its end, Atlantic will have invested about $7.5 billion in direct medical care, immigration reform, education, criminal justice, advocacy and peace-building initiatives.” Earlier this year, NPQ noted the Atlantic Philanthropies’ $350 million gift to Cornell University, Feeney’s alma mater, for a new technology campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island.

According to the Times, Feeney, who achieved financial success through the duty-free shops he established, finds that his joy comes from giving his money away. Feeney’s belief that “the poor are always with us” and that “you never run out of people you can help” led Warren Buffett to call Feeney the “spiritual leader” of his campaign to spur giving among the world’s wealthiest people. Feeney fleshes out this philosophy in this film.

Duke University’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society has been monitoring foundation spend-downs and, in an interview with NPQ, director Edward Skloot said via email: “Our sense is that the discussion of this subject is on the upswing but that the decision to spend down is somewhat slower.” Skloot says that it’s hard to know whether Feeney or the Atlantic Philanthropies have become models for the estimated seven foundations that will spend down before 2013. As a general benchmark, he explains that the standard view in the field is that “perhaps 15% of foundations have discussed the matter.”

NPQ has published a number of articles on this topic, including “Escaping the Perpetuity Mindset Trap” by Buzz Schmidt. You can also download Francie Ostrower’s “Limited Life Foundations: Motivations, Experiences and Strategies” from the Urban Institute website. –Anne Eigeman