Atlantic Philanthropies and the Spend-Down TrendFebruary 10, 2017
After 34 years of innovative funding, 2016 marked Atlantic Philanthropies’ final year of grantmaking. The foundation will close their doors entirely in 2020. Intentionally shutting down any organization may seem surprising — however, the decision to wind down their philanthropic giving was strategically planned for years. In fact, many donors believe this approach to giving, called time limited philanthropy, may have a better shot at addressing the world’s most pressing challenges.
Throughout his philanthropic career, Atlantic Philanthropies founder Chuck Feeney explored new giving methods that set the bar for creating sustainable impact without fanfare. Two years after he started his foundation in 1982, Mr. Feeney transferred the majority of his funds to the organization. Over the next 33 years they gave over $8 billion in grants, primarily addressing causes related to human rights and social justice. Yet all of their grants were filed anonymously for the foundation’s first 13 years in operation. It was only in 1997 that Mr. Feeney made the call to discontinue anonymous grantmaking, with the hopes of inspiring other philanthropists to follow his lead in giving generously and freely. Motivated by his ideas of devoting the majority of his wealth to create positive change, in 2002 his trustees set the foundation’s time horizon.
True to his vision, Mr. Feeney’s impact has influenced others to adopt similar giving models with a predetermined endpoint. Although it may not be ideal for everybody, this practice has developed into a rising trend among foundations and philanthropists, known under several different titles such as spending-down and giving while living.
Many foundations have elected to adapt the spending-down concept to suit their culture, mission, or founders’ preferences. Notably, the Gates Foundation plans to close their doors within 20 years after the death of their last trustee in order to make the greatest possible impact on the 21st century, an idea from Bill and Melinda Gates themselves. Others choose to model their time-limited giving to expedite action on particularly pressing issues; the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, for example, will spend all of its resources by 2020 to conserve the environment and improve the education system in California. This trend is set to become more popular among large foundations in the coming years – in late 2016, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation announced their decision to invest the remainder of their assets, totaling approximately $1 billion, over the next decade.
The Giving Pledge has further encouraged philanthropists to make big bets within their lifetimes. Founded by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, the Pledge invites high net worth individuals to make a commitment to give more than half of their wealth to charitable causes of their own choosing. More than 150 individuals and families have taken the pledge, including well-known signatories Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Michael R. Bloomberg.
Aside from the benefits of creating a significant impact through big bets, adopting a time-limited approach has personal advantages for the donor themselves. Choosing to give sooner rather than later will allow for greater donor contribution in planning and implementation. First-hand involvement will ensure that their funds are being allocated in the most appropriate ways to fit the donors’ plans and vision. And when their work is done, the donors will still be around to witness their impact themselves.
When it comes to setting a starting line, there is truly no time like the present. The current realities of our world present ample opportunity for urgent action. With the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals – which is estimated to require at least $5 to 7 trillion annually – there is an unprecedented opportunity for investors and philanthropists to become involved in global development. Since the Global Goals have been given their own timespan with a finish line in 2030, a time-limited approach that coincides with SDG implementation could ensure the Goals’ greatest possible impact.
Even though their days of grantmaking have ended, Atlantic Philanthropies’ impact is far from over. Last year, as one of their final projects, they launched Atlantic Fellows, a program for individuals who are committed to addressing societal inequalities. Over the next two decades, Atlantic will invest more than $600 million to develop a global network of thousands of fellows. Additionally, Atlantic Philanthropies has allocated a grant to Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, aiding the further dissemination of information on the merits of choosing a spend-down approach to philanthropy. By giving while living, Chuck Feeney established a legacy that will last lifetimes and give a new generation of philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and future leaders the inspiration, knowledge, and empowerment to carry on his vision.
 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. World Investment Report 2014: Investing in the SDGs: An Action Plan (Vienna: United Nations, 2014).