Something Big Is Coming From Atlantic Philanthropies. But What?

It’s no big secret that Atlantic Philanthropies plans to shutter all grantmaking operations in 2016, and close completely by 2020. This isn’t some midnight pulling up of stakes, like when the JEHT Foundation disappeared as a result of the Madoff fraud. This is a considered, mindful, planned sundown of a foundation that has made some major, though often clandestine, gifts in the past three decades.

It’s one of the largest private foundations in the world. It has made multimillion-dollar gifts to support projects in public health, social justice, anti-poverty, and educational realms, including $27 million to Health Care for America Now, to help pass the Affordable Care Act. But though it’s really close to the end, president Christopher G. Oechsli stresses: this era of Atlantic’s giving is a crescendo, not a sad trombone. There is plenty of time left on the clock, plenty of opportunity for worthy organizations to get in on the action.

Founder Chuck Feeney’s plea for philanthropists to embrace “Giving While Living” lies at the heart of Atlantic’s approach. Feeney uses this phrase primarily as a way to encourage big, generous gifts from living philanthropists. He once told the New York Times, “A lot of wealthy people, they don’t realize they have the alternatives of spending the money for good. If they knew it gives so much satisfaction, I wouldn’t have to persuade them.”

But beyond Feeney’s battle-call to his fellow million- and billionaires, Atlantic Philanthropies has incorporated this mantra into their foundational mission. In short: huge gifts lobbed at today’s most pressing problems can keep them from ballooning into unwieldy crises.

That’s really the key to sizing up Atlantic’s current priorities and finding a way in their door. As the clock winds down, Oeschli says that Atlantic’s final “bets” will be “fewer and bigger”—perhaps meaning bolder—with more daring, full-bore funding aligned with a streamlined set of initiatives. And with a few billion still in the bank, we’re guessing Atlantic still has some monetarily big gifts up its sleeve in their priority areas:

  • Promoting and improving care for chronic health conditions
  • Tackling inequality and promoting opportunity
  • Enhancing health equity for diverse populations in low resource environments
  • Strengthening transformative organizations and efforts
  • Sharing the playbooks

But if the priorities are clear, what might the big gifts be? What could be on par with, say, that giant gift for Cornell's new science campus on Roosevelt Island, or something as bold as the big money to help win the ACA fight?

We've heard from a source close to Atlantic that something big is indeed coming. Maybe very big. Or a few big things. And Oeschli tells us to prepare: “The symphony is building, and there are key movements to come.” But he doesn't give any solid hints at what this will look like. 

Atlantic has given away $5 billion since its inception in 1982, and it will be giving away almost as much money in just the next two years. Though it doesn’t accept unsolicited proposals, it still has active grant programs looking for qualified candidates, and will invite worthy organizations to make full proposals. Check out Atlantic’s Funding Guidelines for more information.