Monday, August 26, 2013

Book Alert: Behind the Scenes at Atlantic Philanthropies

While on sabbatical in Northern Ireland in 2010 at Queens University Belfast, I first encountered Atlantic Philanthropies.  I kept running into innovative projects such as QUB's Changing Ageing Partnership -- and it would turn out the projects had started with seed-funding from Atlantic Philanthropies. 

I came to realize that this private foundation was involved in cutting edge fields in many parts of the world.  For example, it was funding aging research, health care projects, and higher education programs, such as the creation of the now thriving University of Limerick in the Republic of Ireland.  However, the organization had often flown well below the radar screen, and for the early years of its operation, it was virtually impossible to "apply" for a grant.  The organization might find you if you were doing sufficiently "good" work, but not usually the other way around.  Eventually that approach changed, and AP opened its door for more traditional grant applications.   

The man behind the organization's start was Chuck Feeney, an Irish-American businessman and philanthropist who quietly gave away the bulk of the fortune he made with Duty Free Shoppers before anyone even know he was a billionaire.  The fascinating story of Chuck Feeney was told by Dublin-based author Conor O'Clery in the book, The Billionaire Who Wasn't, published in the US in 2007. 

After reading the book, I "tuned in" to what was happening with private philanthropy, and soon realized that core funding from Atlantic Philanthropies was also behind many important legal service operations in the U.S., including the National Senior Citizens Law Center.  

Chuck Feeney's behind-the-scenes impact predated Bill Gate's more transparent support for public philanthropy.   I think it is safe to say that researching Chuck Feeney's history led me to add Nonprofit Organizations Law to my teaching package (which includes Elder Law, of course) at Penn State Law.  I wanted to know more about whether and how NPOs based in the US can maximize their impact.    

I thought that we already knew more or less the whole story of Atlantic Philanthropies, especially as the foundation was slated to go out of existence with a "spend-down" giving plan that would exhaust its multi-billion dollar endowment by approximately 2017.

It turns out there is more to the story, including a recent struggle for control over Atlantic Philanthropies that goes to the heart of 82-year-old Chuck Feeney's original vision.  That story is now being told, again by Conor O'Clery, in a new edition of The Billionaire Who Wasn't and excerpts recently released in the Irish Times newspaper.    Even if you have not seen the movie Jobs, about Steve Jobs at Apple Computers, you can imagine the conflict that can develop when you combine innovative "genius" and for-profit corporate policy-makers; it appears the intrigue can be just as great in the world of nonprofit foundations.  

Hat tip to Una Lynch in Northern Ireland for alerting me to the latest news on Chuck Feeney and Atlantic Philanthropies.

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