More often than not, the great philanthropic foundations of the world function like a perpetual motion machine. As long as there is good work to be done, they manage their assets in a way that allows them to operate indefinitely. An exception to that rule is the Atlantic Philanthropies, a foundation that has made grants worth more than $6.5 billion over the course of its three-decade-long history. Before the end of this decade, Atlantic will bring its organization to a close. In “A Good Ending,” a Viewpoint article published in the Fall 2014 issue of SSIR, two men associated with Atlantic—Christopher G. Oechsli, president and CEO, and, David La Piana, a consultant to the foundation—deliver a series of insights on the mammoth task of winding down an entity that has multiple stakeholders and very high ambitions.

To supplement the article, we present several items that shed light on how Atlantic is approaching the final phase of its organizational life. We share this material with gratitude to Oechsli and La Piana, and to the Atlantic Philanthropies.

In their Viewpoint essay, Oechsli and La Piana outline broad lessons that might apply to any foundation that pursues a limited-life strategy. In a complementary article posted in April 2014 on the Atlantic Philanthropies website, Oechsli describes how Atlantic’s limited-life strategy is playing out at the level of its own grantmaking. We republish that article below, in a lightly edited form. (You can read the original post here.) Embedded within the article are two video segments that summarize the foundation’s work in two countries—South Africa and Viet Nam.

NOT Spending Down: CEO Update

Atlantic is not a “spend down” foundation, although we’re often described as such. Yes, we will complete all of our grantmaking by the end of 2016. The term “spending down,” however, suggests a slow, inexorable depletion of assets, resources, and impact, or perhaps a rushed process of shoveling money out the door before the foundation closes. Nothing could be further from our founder Chuck Feeney’s intent and Giving While Living philosophy. As Atlantic board member Sara Lawrence Lightfoot frequently admonishes, “Words matter.” And the term “spend down” doesn’t begin to express who we are, what we do, or the “why” of our philanthropy.

In fact, Atlantic is literally and figuratively in a “building up” phase—developing our final philanthropic investments and building on the advances, successes, and lessons learned from our 30-plus-year history of grantmaking. These final years will be among our most active, creative, and, we expect, effective. [As in] a symphony, the themes, movements, and passages in our prior grantmaking are coming together in a crescendo that we hope will resonate long after the playing of the final note.

Building Up to the End That theme of linkage, connection, and coming together was particularly palpable in late February [2014], when I was privileged to join with President Barack Obama and the heads of leading foundations to announce a public-private partnership to create opportunities and eliminate barriers for young men of color in the United States. The East Wing of the White House was filled with funders, advocates, business and faith leaders, and young people—a diverse crowd, all committed to advancing opportunity for young men of color.

[It] was hard to see around or over the great (in stature and in life) Magic Johnson, who was seated next to me. Behind him was Jean Quan, the mayor of Oakland, Calif., and her deputy mayor, Sandré Swanson. Mayor Quan and I met earlier that morning over breakfast to discuss … the city’s work together [with the Atlantic].

Oakland is an example of a place where the impact of Atlantic’s strategies and support are evident not only [in the] reformed school discipline policies or in the expansion of school-based health centers in Alameda County [where Oakland is located], [but in] the tapestry of the entire community. More children are healthy and in school, more schools have replaced harsh and ineffective “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies with more rational and effective ones, and more families and communities are engaged and connected with the resources to help their children succeed. This is a multifaceted, comprehensive effort that seeks to strengthen a connected, committed community.

As we near the end of our grantmaking, that’s what we’re going for. If our story was just about investing and spending money, we could be a bank or a brokerage. But Atlantic’s story isn’t just about spending. We are investing in sustained, systemic improvements in our constituency communities.

This characteristic isn’t distinctive to Atlantic or to a limited-life approach. In fact, it is the aspiration of many foundations, including those with much longer lives than ours. What sets Atlantic apart is the intensity and urgency that comes with a limited life, which sharpens focus and necessarily requires that we prioritize what matters most in the context of our experience and opportunities for lasting impact.

Our Final Focus Because our funds and time are limited, and because we believe philanthropy is more effective when focused on doing a few things well, our final “bets” will be fewer and bigger. By “fewer,” we mean focused on fewer themes and recipients. By “bigger,” we don’t necessarily mean bigger in dollars, euros, pound sterling, rand, or dong, but bigger in concept and catalytic opportunity. For example, we are:

  • Promoting and improving care for chronic health conditions.
 Globally, people are living longer, and our demographic profiles reflect an older population. The burdens of health care are shifting to chronic disease and issues associated with dementia. How effectively we manage chronic health conditions will determine the quality of life for millions and [will] have significant fiscal impact. Building on our prior work in this area in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, the United States, Viet Nam, and South Africa, we are looking at opportunities to accelerate change for chronic-care delivery. We also expect to support a few leading palliative care organizations and to facilitate meaningful interaction and connections within that community of practitioners, policymakers, and funders.
  • Tackling inequality and promoting opportunity.
 Drawing on our varied work in the United States on school discipline reform, ending discriminatory policing practices, community schooling and health care access in disadvantaged communities, and abolition of the death penalty, we are homing in on the underlying and pervasive challenge of eliminating race-based disparities in opportunity that lies at the root of these issues. … Atlantic’s engagement with government and other foundations encompasses our grantees’ historical work and success to date, and [we] will identify prospects for deeper and broader evidence-based investments in promoting equality that can be sustained beyond Atlantic’s limited life.
  • Enhancing health equity for diverse populations in low-resource environments.
 A core aspect of Atlantic’s grantmaking in Viet Nam and South Africa has been to improve access to and delivery of effective community-based primary care by developing the human resource base to provide the care and promote prevention. Building on this history, we are exploring lasting contributions [that] Atlantic might be able to make to the longer-term development of human capital in those regions and elsewhere.
  • Strengthening and even launching transformative organizations and efforts. [For example, we recently established] the Bermuda Community Foundation, which will generate and support strategic philanthropy on the island.
  • Sharing the playbooks.
 We are summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing the approaches that Atlantic and our grantees have used to achieve desired outcomes and social change, such as strategic public litigation, advocacy, capital investments (both physical and human), place-based and evidence-based models of best practices, matching grants, partnerships with government, and communications and public engagement efforts. Which strategies and tactics have worked well to achieve a desired impact? Which haven’t? What does our experience and that of our grantees tell us? To whom does and should this experience matter? What broad conclusions might we draw that would be of use to current and prospective funders?

Telling the Stories We are exploring how to capture and share our and our grantees’ extensive and varied experience in ways that productively inform and influence others. Compiling and telling compelling stories about this work [is] critical to maximizing desired results and impact.

Take, for instance, the story of Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel—the story of a mother [Johnson] who forgives the man [Israel] who killed her son. Or the story of Sabrina Butler Porter, the only woman [in the United States] ever to be exonerated [for a crime while on] death row. As the leading funder of efforts to abolish the death penalty, their stories are reminders that the death penalty is not a theoretical or political issue, but a human one that affects people with faces and names and with husbands, mothers, and children.

We are also committed to telling our own story as a limited-life foundation. The book of Atlantic is yet to be written, but we want it to tell the story of who we are, what we sought to accomplish, and what was effective in achieving desired change. So, when we completed grantmaking in South Africa and Viet Nam last December, we produced two short films to tell the stories of impact in those places.

A Look at Our Work in South Africa

A Look at Our Work in Viet Nam

We are also working to document the outcomes and effectiveness of our more than $2.2 billion worth of capital investments in six countries, many of them initiated and directed by our founding chairman, Chuck Feeney. And we are working with StoryCorps and the Center for Oral History at Columbia University to capture and preserve these stories from the perspectives of the people who have been part of them. …

All of this is to say: Atlantic is not “spending down,” but rather gearing up in focused, intentional, and powerful ways to maximize impact, amplify some of the big bets we’ve previously made, and capture and share our stories to show what has been (and what will be) accomplished. Stay tuned. The symphony is building, and there are key movements to come.

The inspiration for Atlantic’s plan to wind down its grantmaking in an intentional way comes from its founder, Chuck Feeney. In a video segment devoted to his philanthropic legacy, Feeney talks about his vision for the foundation.

Chuck Feeney on Giving While Living

Giving while dead, you don’t feel anything. But if you give it away today, you can see what it’s going to do. … I think you do get satisfaction out of something that happens on your watch.—Chuck Feeney