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A Window into Chuck Feeney’s $8B Spend-Down at Atlantic Philanthropies

The largest limited-life spend-down foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, closed in September 2020, with a total of $8B granted to help improve the lives of the vulnerable and disadvantaged. 

Joining in 2004, I was a board director for 8 years and Chairman of the Board for the last 9 years. It has been the most exciting, rewarding, and worthwhile experience of my life! 

The commitment to spend-down was taken in 2002. Chuck has been often quoted, “If your house is on fire you need more than one bucket of water a day to put it out,” and, “It’s a lot more fun to give while you live than when you are dead.” Truth in humor is a gift that Chuck uses well!

Chuck didn’t want thanks, glory, or fame for his work. His mantra was “give credit to the implementing partner, not to me.” Until 2012 the Atlantic Philanthropies philosophy was to remain anonymous, but eventually, conversations with Gates, Buffet, and others helped Chuck see benefits to those receiving grants and to philanthropists in going public about AP’s work and impact.

I am more often asked about the AP philosophy and how to spend-down than about Chuck the man and what he is like to work with. Chuck’s sense of urgency was palpable; he often asked, “Why will it take so long?” or “What difference will it make to those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged?” His quest for impact was urgent. His need for value for money and to avoid waste was clear: “Why will it cost so much?” was almost a refrain. A key to his success in Duty-Free Shopping, where Chuck was a founder and made his money, was his focus on the customer, with questions like “What does the beneficiary want?”, “Where is her voice?”, and “Has he been involved in the solution?” representing core values.

In the final phase of AP’s life, it became clear that leaving a legacy after closing would ensure Chuck’s philosophy and impact continued for many years. The Atlantic Institute was formed in 2017, to build and connect a global community of courageous leaders who address systemic causes of inequity. Known as Atlantic Fellows, to date they number 500+. More information can be found at https://www.atlanticfellows.org/atlantic-institute.

By: TPW Member Peter Smitham

Peter was a founder of Permira (formerly Schroder Ventures), a global private equity firm where he fulfilled different roles for 30 years until 2015, including managing partner and chairman. Previously he had worked in the electronics industry, including a successful start-up in the 1970s.

In 2000 Peter decided to “go plural” and include strategic philanthropy, social impact investing and emerging market private equity to his developed market private equity career with Permira. Since then he has served on the boards of Marie Stopes, New Philanthropy Capital, Population Services International and, for 13 years, The Atlantic Philanthropies, the last 5 of which as chairman. AP is a multibillion-dollar organisation with a limited life spend down philosophy created and funded by Chuck Feeney.

In 2004 Peter and wife Lynne founded their family foundation, The Kiawah Trust, which focuses on improving the lives of disadvantaged adolescent girls in India.

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