Stories in philanthropy

“We’re not telling people what to do. We just want to show what’s possible.”

President and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, Christopher G. Oechsli, takes a deep dive into lessons learned while executing the $8 billion philanthropic vision of entrepreneur Chuck Feeney, aka the ‘James Bond of Philanthropy’.

Nicole Richards, Feb 2018

The Atlantic Philanthropies believes in making big bets for a better world. Since its establishment in 1982 by self-made billionaire and co-founder of the Duty Free Shoppers Group, Chuck Feeney, The Atlantic Philanthropies has invested US$8 billion across eight regions, including Australia.

With an investment of US$368 million between 1998-2016, Atlantic’s support of knowledge, research and innovation and the advancement of social equity in Australia helped fund 28 capital projects and resulted in $1.5 billion in funding leveraged from government and the private sector. Its final grant in Australia established The Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity which will award 20 fellowships each year to next-generation Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders for the next 20 years.

Consistent with Feeney’s commitment to Giving While Living, Atlantic has made good on its promise as a limited life foundation to wrap up its grantmaking by 2016, ahead of closing the doors for good in 2020.

The grantmaking might be finished, but the task of winding down a foundation of Atlantic’s size and disseminating 35 years of knowledge, is keeping President and CEO, Chris Oechsli, busy indeed. A regular visitor to Australia in recent years, Oechsli will be back in the country in June 2018 to share more insights.

In this detailed Q&A with Philanthropy Australia’s Nicole Richards, Oechsli distills his wisdom and experience of achieving impact, leveraging government resources, philanthropy’s role in advocacy and why, just because you can bet big, doesn’t mean you always should.


NR - The Atlantic Philanthropies charted a new course for philanthropy over the last 35 years, allocating US$8 billion dollars to initiatives in higher education, public health, human rights and research. What are the most important lessons you’d share with Australian philanthropists based on your experience?

CO - The most important lesson for a donor or funder is to be clear about what you are trying to do and how you realistically expect to achieve your goal. This may seem obvious, but clarity is something that people don’t often take the time to be thoughtful about. So, at Atlantic, we’ve often talked about the need for “clarity of the proposition.”

Another lesson, and one I learned from Atlantic’s founder, Chuck Feeney, is the need to be an observer and a student. You have to take the time to learn how you can do something that's going to have an effective outcome. This also often means having others assist you—people who you know and trust, and whose values align with yours—and who can help you really know and understand an opportunity and what you can do to make a difference. But there is no substitute for directly observing and learning about what you intend to address with your resources.


Making big bets has been the hallmark of Atlantic’s approach to social change. Which of those big bets has delivered the most powerful impact?             

All the themes and issues in humankind that matter are complex, long-term, and enduring. As a funder, you have to identify the elements of these challenges, and determine how best to address them in ways that will produce a lasting impact.

Looking across our 35 years of grantmaking, three signature approaches to our work stand out:

One—how we provided support for organisations and strong leaders, often in the form of grants for core operations or capacity building, so these organisations could address root causes of problems, rather than symptoms.

Two—how we partnered with government to leverage their resources and help inform their policy decisions. On other occasions, we supported advocates working outside government to change laws or influence policies.

Three—how our investments in building projects helped to create physical places that brought people together where they could collaborate on solutions to problems.

The big bets we’re most proud of often involved partnerships with government on projects they were already considering and which dovetailed with program areas important to us such as higher education and public health. While Atlantic’s resources were significant, they paled in comparison to what government can invest.

As a result, just about everywhere Atlantic worked—Australia, Ireland, Northern Ireland, the United States, and Viet Nam—partnering with government enabled the foundation to invest in projects of great scope and vision and which often led to outcomes and impact greater than what either of us could do alone.

For example, one such bet that paid off big is one you may know about—the biotechnology investments from Atlantic that helped turn Queensland into the “Smart State.” The projects we supported included the Queensland Brain Institute, the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, and the Translational Research Institute. Part of the reason we had such success is in Queensland is because Chuck worked directly with the state’s then Premier Peter Beattie, and his successor, Anna Bligh. As a result of that partnership, the State Government contributed nearly A$500 million to this effort over and above Atlantic’s grants.

Let me give you another example.

In the 1990s, Chuck was spending a lot of time in Ireland, largely to scout business opportunities. But he also looked for what he called “ripe” philanthropic investments. Over time, he learned about plans the Irish government had been making to invest in research institutions for a project known as the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions, or PRTLI.  At the time, Ireland was badly lagging in research and there was growing recognition that the government needed to substantially increase its investments or risk losing both talent and economic opportunity.

After learning more about what the government had been contemplating, Chuck personally reached out to then Prime Minister Bernie Ahearn.  He told him if the government went ahead with the project, Atlantic would also invest in it. The foundation ultimately contributed (US) $247.5 million over three rounds of funding.

As Ahearn later said, the combined, and massive, investments from both the government and Atlantic in research infrastructure—new buildings and state-of-the art laboratories—“revolutionised” third level education Ireland. As he put it, “The universities were better, academic programs were better, there were far more students, graduates staying in Ireland. It was a huge expansion program.”

Another big bet that had a significant payoff – and this time in lives saved – occurred in Viet Nam where Atlantic helped support a law mandating that all motorbike riders wear helmets. Before this law was enacted in 2007, as many as 14,000 people were dying each year from accidents involving motorbikes—and 2,000 of those dying were children. Motorbike accidents also accounted for some 30,000 cases of severe brain damage every year. To help pass the law, Atlantic largely worked behind the scenes. We supported a coalition of nonprofits, nongovernment organisations, UNICEF, as well as the Vietnamese government to raise awareness of the dangers of riding without a helmet. The foundation also supported the manufacture of affordable helmets people would likely wear. And we helped build the political will for a law that would make it mandatory for all motorbike riders to wear helmets.

The law went into effect in mid-December 2007. People who were watching to see what would happen on the first day described a “sea of helmets” on roads across the country. That initial compliance continued in the years that followed. According to one study, from 2008 to 2013, wearing helmets saved over 20,000 lives and prevented more than 400,000 serious injuries.


Atlantic is arguably the world’s most famous limited life foundation. In Australia, very few philanthropic foundations have been established with a sunset clause. To your mind, what are the advantages of ‘Giving while Living’?

Giving While Living enables donors to be closely engaged with their giving over the course of their lifetimes and to see the difference they’ve made in people’s lives. When you are fortunate enough to have the resources to give on a large scale – and to see the difference that can make – that's the ultimate life experience. That doesn’t mean this work is easy or free of complications, disappointments, or even mistakes. But as Chuck wrote in a letter to Bill Gates shortly after joining the Giving Pledge, those challenges “should not divert each of us from making philanthropic investments in what we thoughtfully believe to be the highest and best use of our resources.” In that same letter, Chuck also noted that the setbacks he experienced over the years paled in comparison with the “impact and deep personal satisfaction” that came from his giving.

Giving While Living also enables you to address pressing problems before they become even more entrenched and expensive. Maybe your goal is eliminating a disease that ravages entire societies, such as HIV/AIDS, or supporting researchers who are working to turn cancer from a death sentence into a chronic disease.

When you limit yourself because you are trying to preserve your resources for perpetuity, you are limiting, if not forgoing, the opportunity to have impact sooner—even during your lifetime.

To me, it all comes down to the opportunity to have impact and what is it going to take to have that impact.


Advocacy is a loaded word for many funders. What role do you think philanthropy can, or should, play in funding advocacy to effect social change?

I think it’s important to define what we mean by advocacy. Advocacy is often associated with trying to change or influence laws and public policies. Usually that involves supporting groups building movements to put pressure on government to change policies. Atlantic has supported that kind of advocacy by funding groups working to abolish the death penalty in the United States and those campaigning in South Africa to make treatment available to people with HIV/AIDS.

We’ve also worked directly with government to change policies and practices. Sometimes we did that by modeling different types of service delivery and demonstrating what’s possible. On other occasions we encouraged government to be co-funders with us, like we did in Australia to help Queensland become the “Smart State.”

Regardless of the form it takes, we are mindful of the fact that when foundations invest in advocacy—or try to influence government polices and practices—they are able to do so because of the wealth at their disposal and the freedom to use it for that purpose. That ability brings with it enormous responsibility. When we’ve made these kinds of investments, we’ve always taken great care to ensure our actions were intended to increase the prospects for healthier and more inclusive societies and to support voices with an aspiration to advance the public good.

In talking about advocacy or any kind of grantmaking Atlantic did over the years, I’d be remiss if I didn’t repeat something that Chuck Feeney was fond of saying: “I'm not here to tell anybody what to do.” We are not telling people what to do. We just want to show what’s possible.


The Atlantic Philanthropies’ final Australian grant was US$50 million to establish the Atlantic Fellows Social Equity Program at the University of Melbourne to nurture the next generation of social change leaders, particularly from excluded groups. What kind of outcomes would you like to see the Fellowships achieve?

The Atlantic Fellows Program for Social Equity in Australia is one of six global fellowship programs in which we are investing to build fairer, healthier and more inclusive societies. The specific aim of the program in Australia is to tackle the challenge of persistent inequality and social exclusion, particularly from the perspective of Indigenous communities.  A major focus of the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity is to recruit leaders, primarily from Indigenous communities, who will drive change from the grass roots up. The program will help Fellows develop leadership skills and social action strategies that we hope will lead to healthier, more resilient and inclusive communities across Australia and the Asia-Pacific.


With its last grants made at the end of 2016, what will Atlantic focus on between now and when the doors officially close in 2020?

We’re focusing on several things:

First, we are actively sharing the stories and lessons of Atlantic’s experiences through our website and a variety of publications, such as Country Books that discuss and describe the work we did in many of the places we invested over the years, including Australia. We also have our Insights series, which features individual volumes that look at how we approached our work and the different strategies we used, such as partnering with government or investing in advocacy. Our goal is to inform, inspire, and perhaps even influence future generations of philanthropists.

Second are the six Atlantic Fellows programs, which I mentioned earlier, where the major part of our final funding – more than US$600 million – is dedicated. The purpose of the Atlantic Fellows program is to empower catalytic communities of emerging leaders across the globe to advance fairer, healthier and more inclusive societies. In addition to the individual Fellows programs, we are supporting the Atlantic Institute. Based in Oxford, England, the Institute serves as a hub for the global community of Fellows, enabling them to learn from one another as well as to connect and collaborate across borders, cultures and disciplines.  This is a very ambitious undertaking, and right now most of the individual programs are still in the start up phase. As such, they require a lot of work to get them positioned before we depart so they can thrive and have maximum success for many years into the future.

Third is just ending well and being thoughtful to our grantees, our partners, and our staff. We want to conclude these internal and external relationships respectfully and having completed all our obligations well. And, we don’t want any of our final cheques to bounce!


Any final words of wisdom?

One lesson worth sharing relates to making big bets. Just because you can bet big, doesn’t mean you always should. Sometimes it’s wiser to start with a series of small bets to get a sense of the landscape and the odds. That approach can give you and your grantees valuable insights and a better understanding of the opportunity and challenges. You should only bet big when you feel the time and opportunity are right.

Finally, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. They happen. But they’re often followed by success. It’s like the American baseball player Babe Ruth once said, “Every strike brings me closer to a home run.”


More reading:

Innovation alone isn’t enough to achieve impact: The McConnell Foundation

Big bets and spending down: The Poola Foundation

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