A Closer Look at Atlantic's End Game—And Where It's Putting the Biggest Money

Atlantic Philanthropies is going out with a bang, not a whimper, and it's pretty darn interesting to watch—far more interesting than you think. 

Why? Because the story of Atlantic's end game is not about a multi-billion-dollar foundation that is spending down its assets on a methodical schedule set in stone years ago. Instead, this is more like a fireworks display, and we're only now witnessing the finale—one that's being invented on the fly, no less.

If you're not paying attention, you're missing the best part. 

Atlantic is starting to make a series of "culminating grants" that will shower a handful of organizations with big money, the kind that rarely comes from foundations. What's more, these funds aren't being shoveled out in rote exit grants so Atlantic can meet its deadline of emptying its endowment by 2016. Rather, the foundation has been thinking new thoughts and setting new goals as part of its last phase.

Fewer and Bigger Bets

In an interview last week, Atlantic CEO Christopher G. Oechsli made it clear to me that even now, with the end looming, Atlantic is still considering fresh gambits and debating where to direct the largest grants. 

Oechsli knows how to create suspense. Back in April, Atlantic blasted out a tantalizing message from Oechsli saying that big things were coming—that the foundation would make "fewer and bigger" bets as it wound down. But he wouldn't say on what.

"Stay tuned," Oechsli wrote. "The symphony is building and there are key movements to come."

A few weeks ago, the picture became clearer when the foundation announced that it was making three mega grants: one to foster peace and human rights in Northern Ireland, another to help fund a national dementia strategy in Ireland, and a third to expand the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the Washington-based liberal think tank. (See my take on the CBPP grant.)

The foundation also revealed more about its end-game strategy, including its intention to invest in a small number of what Oechsli calls "champion organizations" like CBPP that can carry forward Atlantic's goals over the long term.

"Transformative, Systemic Change"

I spoke with Oechsli to learn more about the deeper thinking behind Atlantic's strategy, along with where big money is going next. 

The first thing to understand is that Atlantic sees this culminating phase as distinct from its longstanding program funding. "We're moving beyond that approach to grantmaking," Oechsli says. In plotting its final moves, the foundation decided to "pull back and look at the bigger picture." 

At the end of 2012, the foundation created a pot of money for a new phase of work it would call Global Opportunity and Leverage, or GOAL, and further refined its thinking through 2013. Tony Proscio, a Duke scholar who's been writing about the foundation, has said of GOAL that it's "meant not to be solely a final burst of activity, but a new way of thinking about the Foundation's ultimate purpose and how it would conclude."

Atlantic's aim is to build on its previous grantmaking with the hope of "catalyzing transformative, systemic change" in the fields and countries where it has worked. 

Good luck getting over that bar, you might say. On the other hand, this is foundation that still has hundreds of millions of dollars to move out the door.

Investing in champion organizations is one track. Investing in human capital is another approach that Oechsli says will guide Atlantic's final grantmaking, with a focus on "developing future leaders who are grappling with multidisciplinary challenges and networked approaches." Long after the foundation goes out of business, Oechsli says, those leaders can still be advancing its values. 

The Core Focus: Equity

And what, exactly, are Atlantic's values? Oechsli acknowledges that Atlantic's mission has been interpreted in different ways over time (and with some fuss, we might add), but the enduring core, especially in this final phase, is a focus on equity.

“The basic value is the need to enhance opportunity for people who have unfairly been denied that opportunity," Oechsli says. 

(A quick aside: After my recent deep dive into Hewlett, it's refreshing to hear a foundation president state an overarching normative goal clearly and without equivocation. And no, it's not because I share that goal. I also admire funders on the right who are crystal clear about the societal change they seek.) 

As for the means to advance that goal, Oechsli argues that it's important to focus on both "hearts and minds." The foundation places great stock in evidence-based policy, but also wants to back work that connects with people at the gut level through story telling. 

Whatever the approach, "government is a primary audience," says Oechsli, since it has such huge resources and systems in place. In making its big give for dementia work in Ireland, Atlantic is partnering directly with that country's national healtcare system. 

The major grant to CBPP certainly makes sense in the context of Atlantic's thinking: It's an outfit that's hyper-focused on shaping government policy with evidence-based policy analysis on behalf of Americans who've historically been screwed. 

Shaping the Narrative

Atlantic will be announcing more big grants this year, including to additional "champion organizations." This is nice money if you can get it, with Oechsli saying that most of those grants will range from $10 to $20 million. 

So who's going to pull in the big money? Atlantic is figuring that out right now. 

"There are more champions than we can possibly support," Oechsli sighs. “But we’re trying really hard to identify those institutions that can make a lasting impact, reflecting the issues we’ve been involved with and the issues underlying our work.”

One area where Oechsli says that Atlantic will make a significant investment is in shaping "the narrative" around issues of equity. This goes to the foundation's desire to influence people's "hearts," as well as their "minds."

The grant to the wonky Center for Budget, with its endless stream of sober policy briefs, was all about the "minds," but Oechsli says that Atlantic is also interested in "retelling the story about what's unfair and biased."

In another indication that Atlantic's end game is a work in progress, Oechsli said that the foundation was still grappling with how to fund narrative work and was looking at multiple approaches.  

Race Looms Large

Atlantic has been closely involved in My Brother's Keeper, the big initiative on race launched by the White House in February, and Oechsli says that the idea of funding around narrative came from listening to President Obama talk about how boys and young men of color are seen in American society. 

So it wouldn't be surprising if Atlantic did something big to shape how Americans talk about race and equity when it starts writing big checks for storytelling.

In fact, the foundation is already involved in narrative work on race, as part of My Brother's Keeper, through a collaborative effort with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the California Endowment, Ford, Knight, and the Open Society Foundations. This push engages the media, research, and young people of color themselves. 

And long before My Brother's Keeper began, the foundation invested millions of dollars to challenge Draconian school discipline policies, backing grantees that have highlighted the racially biased ways that such policies reinforce a "school-to-prison pipeline.

That work has had enormous traction, with policy change happening at the federal, state, and local levels—all against the broader backdrop of a rethinking of drug laws and the over-incarceration of young people of color.

Going back further, Atlantic has invested over $100 million in a network of schools and school-based health centers to improve opportunities for low-income middle school kids of color. Also, when Gara LaMarche led Atlantic, the foundation devoted considerable thought to how structural racism played out in its main program areas, including ageing, both in the United State and some of the other countries where it operated. LaMarche gave an important speech on race and philanthropy in 2008 that remains compelling reading six years later. 

The question now is how Atlantic is going to pull together its linked interests in equity, race, and narrative through major culminating grants. I imagine there's more than a few NGOs—would-be "champion organizations"—that are keeping their fingers crossed in a big way. 

Healthcare and Education

Health is another area where Atlantic has a stake, given the many millions it has spent not just to help enact the Affordable Care Act but also to implement the law. Oechsli says that the foundation thinks in terms of "health equity" and, in the wake of the successful fight over coverage, has shifted its attention to challenges around healthcare delivery and cost. 

One keen interest of the foundation is building a cadre of healthcare professionals who are drawn from the community, and it's learned a lot about this area from its funding of school-based health clinics. Here again, the foundation is poised to make some major grants. Oechsli says the foundation will give big money to at least one champion organization in the healthcare field, and that significant funding for human capital is also likely. 

Likewise, Atlantic is zeroing in on a big give in the education sector that Oechsli says will be considered by Atlantic's board in September. 

"It's Not an Easy Job"

You might think that shoveling out piles of money to advance longstanding passions would be great fun. But Oechsli says that it's much harder than it looks and that "it's complicated and stressful."

Among other things, it's hard to say no to groups. "To do this well is not an easy job," says Oechsli, although he also describes the process as "very satisfying." 

And what's Atlantic's CEO going to do when this is all over? 

Oechsli says he hasn't given that much thought amid the intense pressures of closing up shop. But whatever he does, it's hard to imagine that it could be nearly as interesting as managing the biggest philanthropic spend down in history.


David Callahan is founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy. He can be reached at davidc@insidephilanthropy.com