A Foundation Confronts Its Final Priorities

November 6, 2015

In 2014, preparing for its final burst of expansive, long-vision grants, Atlantic drew its core programs to a close, downsized its staff, ramped up a final communications strategy, and became, in all respects, an institution in the final stages of work.

 

The Atlantic Philanthropies, the largest institution ever to put its full endowment to use by a planned date and then close its doors, is today roughly a year away from making its final grants. Admittedly, a great deal still remains in its endowment, but Atlantic’s final allocations have tended to be quite large, often in the eight-figure range, and the pipeline of potential grants for the next 12 months is by now nearly full. The concluding grants of 2015 have been not only large in dollar terms, but in the scale of their ambitions — raising the quality of American public-policy debates, expanding primary healthcare in southeast Asia, enriching the international talent pool of advocates for social change, and improving clinical and public-health responses to dementia, among other things.

     So it may be useful, at this point, to remember back a year or so — to a time when the concept of these concluding grants and the big ideas that underlie them were still taking shape, and when the foundation was winding down the programs and strategies that had occupied most of its energies for the past decade. That period, in 2013-14, was when Atlantic essentially changed from a program-oriented foundation, with ongoing strategies charted and piloted by a staff deeply involved their development, to a maker of ambitious, one-time “big bets” meant to influence a future in which the foundation itself would not exist.

     It was the year in which Atlantic ceased to resemble its perpetually endowed peers and began to look and act, in all respects, like an institution performing a long-planned final act.

     As with any period of pronounced organizational change, the year featured an above-average assortment of anxieties and pressures, affecting both its staff and some longtime grantees. Many of these difficulties had been expected, and detailed plans had been made for mitigating them. As a result, some stresses seemed to have been much milder than they could otherwise have been. In some cases, however, there was no avoiding the rough patches, especially for grantees. Although many managed to find alternative sources of support or to scale down their operations to suit a leaner future, others were stumbling into uncertain terrain and struggling to find new donors, to meet matching requirements, or, in some especially challenging circumstances, to consolidate or merge organizations.

     The latest in Duke’s series of reports on the foundation’s conclusion — collectively called “Harvest Time for The Atlantic Philanthropies” — summarizes this period of wholesale change. It covers the events of 2014, and the pivotal transformation of the institution from marathoner to sprinter. From various vantage points — particularly those of program strategy, human resources, communications, and finance — the report catalogues the stark changes in organizational life and outlook. (You can download the report here.)

     Though it’s principally a story of planning and management, there is more than a little emotion involved as well. One employee summed it up this way:

At this stage, nothing sets a precedent. We’re not going to be around long enough to follow precedents. So you can just do what’s important, what’s necessary, not to be too dramatic about it, but just do what’s right. And all the little annoyances, and the big annoyances for that matter, it gets easier to just ignore them. Because they’re not going to be precedents either. When everything becomes one of the last things you’re going to do, you just do your best to do them right. There’s a lot of pressure in that. But then, a lot of the other pressures, … well, they’re sort of gone away.

 

[Photo credit: Jarosław Puszcziński]

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