Lessons for Ambitious Donors from The Atlantic Philanthropies

10/18/2016 |


New Bridgespan paper highlights Atlantic’s “Big Bets” strategy: how it has achieved significant results and learned where it could have done better
BOSTON, MA—October 18, 2016—By the time The Atlantic Philanthropies closes its doors in 2020, it will have given away more than $8 billion to help people around the globe. Through 2015, Atlantic   distributed more than 60 percent of its donations in the form of “big bets” (gifts of more than $10 million). At Atlantic’s behest, The Bridgespan Group has just released an overview of these big bets, 30 percent of which have gone to (Bridgespan’s definition of) social change, compared to 20 percent across US philanthropy.
According to William Foster, a Bridgespan partner and author of the article, “We believe that ambitious donors interested in social change can learn something from how Atlantic developed and implemented its big bets strategy—both what worked, and some of the setbacks and challenges along the way.” Chris Oechsli, Atlantic’s president and CEO, shares that view: “We hope Atlantic’s experiences offer some insights into how other donors can make big bets of their own to make lasting impact and achieve progress towards solving many of today’s pressing social problems.”
A Bridgespan team reviewed some 6500 grants in Atlantic’s data base, ultimately selecting 25 grants and clusters of grants that together comprised a “big bet,” for their significant size, scope and impact for deeper analysis. They identified four key themes that were particularly evident in Atlantic’s most influential bets, and shared case studies to illustrate these:
  • Picking distinctive investment spots and funding gaps in the landscape, such as investing in infrastructure for research at Ireland’s universities;
  • Supporting strong leaders and organizations, often with unrestricted or capacity-building funding;
  • Advocating for change in policy and legal environments—using both traditional grant funding and contributions to civic groups designated as 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations. For example, Atlantic invested in the campaign to abolish the death penalty in the United States; and
  • Giving with the foundation’s end in sight and sustainability in mind, such as its $80 million investment in Vietnam’s provincial primary health-care system. Starting with focus on two reform-minded provinces, Atlantic designed a strategy that brought together a cross-sector range of players in partnership, along with matching funds from government.
The study also surfaced lessons that could have made the bets even more successful if Atlantic had:
  • Made even more of its big bets to social change and focused its efforts over longer time periods;
  • Approached due diligence more rigorously all the time;
  • Been more careful in the few instances it made big bets with approaches that diverged from its typical style; and
  • Made additional, complementary investments around ambitious capital grants to ensure that physical infrastructure would reach its potential.
Because Atlantic’s investments were made with fewer staff than many other large foundations, the report discusses how Atlantic approached staffing. In addition, because Atlantic often worked with or around governments around the globe, the report touches on Atlantic’s strategies here, ranging from careful cultivation of long-term relationships to using strategic litigation to change or enforce the law.
“In Atlantic’s final years, we’ve been making a series of big bets that aim for significant, lasting results in fields and places where we have been historically involved. These culminating grants, which seek to address 21st century problems, build upon our three-plus decades of program investments and cut across several essential issues we’ve been tackling, including health and racial equity; social and economic inequality and neurocognitive health,” said Oechsli.
According to Foster: “It is too early to assess the impact of Atlantic’s final grants, but the nature of the approach reflects the foundation’s faith in big bets strategy as the best way to achieve lasting impact in its final chapter.”


About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group (www.bridgespan.org) is a nonprofit advisor and resource for mission-driven organizations and philanthropists. We collaborate with social sector leaders to help scale impact, build leadership, advance philanthropic effectiveness and accelerate learning. We work on issues related to society’s most important challenges and to break cycles of intergenerational poverty. Our services include strategy consulting, leadership development, philanthropy advising, and developing and sharing practical insights.
About The Atlantic Philanthropies
The Atlantic Philanthropies are dedicated to advancing opportunity, equity and human dignity. Established in 1982, when Chuck Feeney quietly committed virtually all of his assets to the foundation, Atlantic has since made grants approaching $8 billion. In keeping with Mr. Feeney’s “Giving While Living,” big­bet philosophy, Atlantic invests in systemic change to accelerate improvements in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people. The foundation, which has operated in Australia, Bermuda, Cuba, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, South Africa, the United States and Viet Nam, will complete all grant making in 2016 and conclude operations shortly afterward. To learn more, please visit: www.atlanticphilanthropies.org.
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