Photo: Scott Langley, Death Penalty Photography Documentary Project

What Ambitious Donors Can Learn From The Atlantic Philanthropies’ Experience Making Big Bets

10/18/2016 | 45 min

Summary

By the time The Atlantic Philanthropies closes its doors in 2020, it will have distributed $8 billion to advance opportunity and lasting change for disadvantaged and vulnerable people worldwide. This report looks at a number of big bets Atlantic made and how those achieved significant results. It also identifies four themes that ran through Atlantic’s work and outlines lessons learned to help other philanthropists in their big bet efforts. 

Executive Summary

By the time The Atlantic Philanthropies closes its doors in 2020, it will have distributed more than $8 billion—its entire endowment—to advance opportunity and lasting change for disadvantaged and vulnerable people worldwide. Founded in 1982, it was Founder Chuck Feeney’s intention to champion “giving while living” and when the foundation closes, Atlantic will make history by becoming the largest foundation to complete its giving in the donor’s lifetime.

In its grant making, over 60 percent of Atlantic’s overall giving ranks as big bets, investments of $10 million or more. Thirty percent of those bets went to social change causes, including gifts to human services, the environment, and international development. Such big bets have the potential to have big impacts on advancing social change goals. Yet as Bridgespan reported in the December 2015 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Making Big Bets for Social Change,” investments of this size for social change are rare. Just 20 percent of philanthropic big bets went to social change causes between 2000 and 2012.

Why? A number of barriers exist: it’s hard to find and structure big bets, “shovel-ready” opportunities are few and far between, personal relationships between donors and nonprofit leaders can take years to nurture, and the long time horizons required for change and often-murky results make it difficult to measure success. In short, big bets on social change can feel risky.

The story of Atlantic, however, illustrates what can happen when donors take that risk. This report, What Ambitious Donors Can Learn From The Atlantic Philanthropies’ Experience Making Big Bets, looks at a number of big bets Atlantic made and how those achieved significant results. It identified four themes that ran through Atlantic’s work and that were particularly evident in its most influential big bets:

  • Pick distinctive investment spots and funding gaps in the landscape.
  • Support organizations and strong leaders, often with unrestricted or capacity-building funding.
  • Pursue advocacy in a complex social, policy and legal environment, and use both traditional grant funding and 501(c)(4) funding as tools.
  • Give with the foundation’s end in sight and sustainability in mind.

The report also highlights the challenges and failures Atlantic faced along the way. Despite the inherent risk in big bets, Atlantic held the belief that a big bets strategy would be the best way to achieve lasting impact. It is a promising path that is yielding strong results, and Atlantic’s experience offers potential strategies for other donors seeking similar goals.

Further Reading on The Atlantic Philanthropies' Experience Making Big Bets

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