The Atlantic Philanthropies

The Atlantic Philanthropies, a limited life Foundation, headquartered in the United States of America, is an international Foundation dedicated to making lasting changes in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people1.

Atlantic was established in 1982 by Charles (Chuck) F. Feeney who served as its founding chairperson. A first generation Irish American from a blue-collar background, Mr Feeney became the co-founder of the Duty Free Shoppers Group which developed “duty free” as a mechanism for trade.

In 1984 Mr Feeney transferred his business interests to Atlantic. Initially he chose to keep his giving private and so for 13 years he gave anonymously. However, in 2001, Atlantic made the source of its giving public for the sake of transparency and with the hope of encouraging other wealthy people to explore Mr Feeney’s philosophy of philanthropy, namely Giving While Living.




left-quoteI had one idea that never changed in my mind – that you should use your wealth to help people. right-quote

Chuck Feeney, Founder, The Atlantic Philanthropies


Atlantic has a global footprint and has concentrated its programming in the United States, Bermuda, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Vietnam, Australia and South Africa.  As of the end of 2014, Atlantic had made grants totalling more than $7 billion.

In all the countries in which it works, Atlantic seeks to partner with or support the setting up of institutions and organisations that can effect lasting change for the most vulnerable. Driven by the belief that all people have the right to opportunity, equity and dignity, Atlantic supports leaders and organisations making durable improvements in the lives of people who have been denied opportunities and rights. As a limited life Foundation2, Atlantic will conclude its grantmaking in 2016 and cease all operations in 2020. A filmed conversation with Atlantic President and CEO, Christopher Oechsli, provides a recent perspective on the Foundation and its global story.

Mr Feeney’s philanthropic approach is modeled on his business practice: he sought financial investment opportunities that could have maximum impact, identified like-minded partners, and then committed substantial resources to these3.  Atlantic’s grantmaking is thus shaped by Mr Feeney’s personal approach to philanthropy, which is about modesty, pragmatism, good-value investments and a belief in Giving While Living4.

In 2001, when it was decided that Atlantic would be a limited life Foundation in keeping with Mr Feeney’s vision, the organisation refocused its grant programmes.

The aim was to concentrate on grantmaking that could have the greatest impact within a shortened time horizon. Accordingly, Atlantic’s South Africa programme focused on:

  • Reconciliation and human rights, a logical extension of Atlantic’s prior work on democracy‐building towards a non‐racial society
  • Population health, in order to meet the critical need for greater health equity
Giving While Living

left-quoteI cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living – to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition. More importantly, today’s needs are so great and varied that intelligent philanthropic support and positive interventions can have greater value and impact today than if they are delayed when the needs are greater.* right-quote
Chuck Feeney, Founder, The Atlantic Philanthropies

Atlantic defines Giving While Living as the decision by a donor to spend his or her philanthropic resources while alive and generally with the donor’s active participation in the giving programme. In 2002, in keeping with Mr Feeney’s Giving While Living philosophy, Atlantic announced that it would spend down its remaining assets and close its doors by 2020.

Giving While Living is but one way in which some high-net-worth individuals (HNWI) choose to engage in philanthropy. Atlantic has made available a number of tools on Giving While Living, including tips for donors in considering this approach to giving.

A brief history of Atlantic in South Africa

In the 1990s, Atlantic’s interest in supporting South Africa’s newly founded democracy largely focused on:

  • Justice: Building the new legal system by supporting training and career development for lawyers, especially black professionals
  • Civil society: Solidifying the role of non-profit and community‐based organisations to advance Constitution rights; support for disadvantaged South Africans to secure their rights; and to hold the government and the private sector accountable for ensuring that constitutional standards and obligations are met
  • Higher education: Increasing the financial and human capacity of colleges and universities to serve greater numbers of disadvantaged, black students5
video-iconTalking Philanthropy

Reflections on The Atlantic Philanthropies in South Africa

In keeping with its Founder’s philanthropic vision and thus the intention to spend down the Foundation’s capital, Atlantic identified areas of work where grantmaking would be likely to have the most impact in a limited period. To this end, the South Africa office focused its efforts on two programmes, namely Reconciliation and Human Rights and Population Health.

The Reconciliation and Human Rights programme in South Africa targeted its pursuit of equality and justice on three marginalised groups:

  • Farmworkers and the rural poor
  • Refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people

The programme aimed to support the establishment of an enduring infrastructure to protect the rights of LGBTIs, the immigrant community and the rural poor. It also sought to strengthened movements and organisations to protect democracy and the fundamental rights and freedoms under the South African Constitution.

In promoting reconciliation the programme also supported:

Atlantic’s goals in the Population Health programme were to secure the fundamental right to health for all citizens and to improve the well‐being of the most vulnerable. It concentrated on:

  • Strengthening human resources in the health care sector
  • Building quality primary health care systems
  • Supporting vulnerable populations within the health system
  • Ensuring the implementation of health care policies in line with constitutional rights and state obligations

Resourcing Philanthropy focuses in particular on the experiences of Atlantic and its grantee and funding partners within its Reconciliation and Human Rights programme.

For more on Atlantic’s work and impact in South Africa see A look at our work in South Africa and The Atlantic Philanthropies in South Africa: 1991–2013

Scale, style and scope of investment

During 22 years of funding in South Africa, Atlantic has disbursed more than 479 grants and has invested $355.5 million in the region. Details of the organisations and sectors supported through these grants are available here.

Atlantic is not only notable for the significant monetary value of its investments in human rights and social justice in South Africa, but also for the character of its funding practice and partner relations which provide value insights for others in the philanthropy field. Key features of Atlantic’s grantmaking in South Africa include:

  • An understanding of the history and context in which its grantmaking sought to make a lasting difference
  • A deep commitment to the South African Constitution and the need to ensure that the rights it enshrines can be made real
  • Recognition of the complexity of the South African operating environment
  • A reliance on local knowledge, experience and expertise to inform its grantmaking strategies
  • Collaborative engagements with project partners and other funders
  • Supporting research, feasibility studies and pilot programmes to enable evidence-based funding decision-making
  • Leveraging its position as a grantmaker to convene groups of role players in responding to social issues
  • Using its influence to marshal significant resources from partner funders and others in its fields of operation
  • Sustained funding commitments to advocacy organisations and campaigns to advance human rights and social justice for marginalised and disadvantaged populations
  • Calculated risk-taking to support new organisations and to fund in areas that, historically, had received little support
  • A willingness to provide core support for organisations over time, and to make large capital investments
  • An appetite to fund audacious projects with the potential for high-impact change and that also carried considerable risk
  • Strengthening anchor institutions in key sectors
  • Building a positive and active profile for private philanthropy, and working to grow the local philanthrophic field

Atlantic is one of many grantmakers in South Africa. Multi-faceted and substantial in value and scope, the South African grantmaking arena includes business, government, local and international Trusts and Foundations, as well as individuals. Further details on this can be found in a broad snapshot of the South African philanthropic environment.

video-iconTalking Philanthropy

Thoughts on Philanthropy in South Africa

Almost every fabric of South African public life bears testimony to the dual philosophy which infused Atlantic Philanthropies’ philanthropic giving, that of Giving While Living and taking big bets. These two inter-related aspects of Atlantic’s approach will leave an enduring legacy. While technically it will spend itself out of existence, programmatically it will endure for many generations to come.*

Russell Ally Executive Director, Development and Alumni Department, University of Cape Town