As the trade association Philanthropy New York reports, this week, the Atlantic Philanthropies foundation (“Atlantic”) released a 56-page booklet entitled “Atlantic Insights: Giving While Living.” The publication, coauthored by Wall Street Journal journalist Heidi Waleson and Forbes editor Steven Bertoni, can be freely downloaded.
The booklet explores foundation founder Chuck Feeney’s philanthropic worldview, which centers on using a limited-life foundation to increase impact by freeing up funds for more rapid deployment. Feeney disbursed his grants broadly, but focused on education, health, human rights, and healthy aging. All told, more than $8 billion in grants were disbursed to nearly 2,000 grant recipients, spread among a number of countries—among them, Australia, Bermuda, Cuba, the United Kingdom (with a strong focus on Northern Ireland), the Republic of Ireland, South Africa, the United States, and Vietnam.
Atlantic has been broadly influential in the philanthropic world, as Nonprofit Quarterly has noted before. As Ruth McCambridge wrote last year, among other things, “Atlantic Philanthropies was known for the attention it paid to the institutions to which it gave, carefully designing the weaning process with many of its longer-term grantees.” Feeney is also notable in the philanthropic world for other reasons: Until the foundation made a decision to become a limited-life foundation, it donated anonymously, and Feeney throughout has maintained a modesty in his lifestyle (flying coach, for example) that is unusual in philanthropic circles.
Philanthropy New York reports that this booklet is meant to be the first in a series, as the foundation seeks to share lessons learned before closing its doors in 2020. Future publications will “examine Atlantic’s support for advocacy and strategic litigation to change harmful and unfair public policies and laws, how it partnered with governments around the world to improve public services, and the purpose of its nearly $3 billion in investments in capital projects.”
As the authors acknowledge, Feeney hardly invented the concept of intentionally spending down foundation assets. The book itself cites the Rosenwald Fund, which gave away all of its funds in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as more contemporary examples such as the Olin Foundation, the Aaron Diamond Foundation, and the Beldon Fund. Still, the authors are surely correct in stating that Feeney helped popularize the concept.
In fact, “giving while living” has gained broad popularity, especially among philanthropists hailing from the tech economy, including such high-profile adherents as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who in 2015 pledged to give away 99 percent of his stock, valued at $45 billion at the time, to charitable causes during his lifetime. The Center for Strategic Philanthropy—based in Durham, North Carolina—provides a useful compilation of prominent foundations that have spent down all of their funds or are committed to doing so. The growth of “giving while living” has also sparked a bit of a reaction. For example, Duke law professor Joel Fleishman’s latest book, Putting Wealth to Work, defends the traditional model of maintaining foundations in perpetuity as often being the most appropriate approach.
One could discuss at length the pros and cons of spending down versus keeping a perpetual endowment. For example, the Philanthropy Roundtable hosts a nicely curated collection of many leading publications on this very topic. Years ago, GuideStar founder Buzz Schmidt, writing for Nonprofit Quarterly, suggested using the term “deliberative deployment” to make the point that the key question is not the speed by which you give out grants, but rather “what is the timing of the strategy you will pursue to maximize the value of your munificence?” In other words, the ends matter. Some goals may lend themselves to high-impact, short-term investment; others may benefit more from a long-term approach that’s best implemented through a perpetual foundation.
Limited-life foundations, as Feeney puts it, involve a