I uttered several affirmations (everything from “right on!” to “yes!” to even “Amen!”) while reading the Atlantic Philanthropies new report, Turning Passion Into Action: Giving While Living. Atlantic wants to motivate wealthy donors to adopt their founder Chuck Feeney’s approach to philanthropy: the “giving while living” philosophy. It is the belief that donors should give their money away now, while the donor is still alive and can be an active participant.
Atlantic has committed to spend all of its assets by 2020 so that it can, without delay, help to improve the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people around the world. Colin McCrea, Atlantic’s senior vice president, articulated the impetus behind the Foundation’s commitment in a speech earlier this year:
“All of us involved in philanthropy would like to see more people giving more money in a more thoughtful way.”
Atlantic’s desire to get “more people giving more money” is evident in Turning Passion Into Action. It is an inspiring publication. For example, it is powerful to learn how Feeney turned his belief that you should use your money to solve today’s problems into a revitalization of Ireland’s higher education system.
The profile of Anthony Welters, founder of the HMO AmeriChoice, is a heartfelt story about the genuine responsibility he feels to support others in gaining an education. “It’s not a one-off,” he says, “not something that we cut back on. If the economy is down, we do more since the need is greater, and make sacrifices elsewhere.”
The sense of urgency for giving money away now is also emphasized in the profile of Declan Ryan — heir of the Ryanair fortune. His One Foundation was created under the guideline that it operate for only ten years (the foundation will close its doors in 2013).
The report holds true to its intent of inspiring donors to give money, but it does not address the need to get people to give in “a more thoughtful way” with as much fervor. In this way, the report disappoints.
While the word “impact” creeps into the report from time to time, and each profile highlights donors’ accomplishments, the publication doesn’t hit hard enough the point that Bridgespan’s Susan Ditkoff and Thomas Tierney make in an op-ed about the Buffet-Gates challenge to billionaires. “Donating lots of money is a necessary first step, but it is only the first step. The real issue is having clarity on what success looks like and how money can help create change, before springing into check-writing mode.”
Atlantic’s report provides “Tips for Donors Considering Giving While Living,” which are useful questions that donors should ask themselves. I wish these tips were woven more throughout the report rather than coming near the end of the publication. The most helpful questions (and perhaps the hardest ones to answer) are the ones that touch on the impact argument made by Ditkoff and Tierney:
- What specific issue or problem do you want to tackle?
- Who else is working in this field, and what are they doing?
- What are the successful models? Unsuccessful ones?
- What is your strategy for making change?
- How do you define and assess success? In the short term? Long term?
These questions to help donors be more strategic in their giving resonate with questions CEP asks in the Strategy Self-Assessment tool, which is based on research findings reported in Essentials of Foundation Strategy. While the tool focuses on how strategic foundation staff are in their decision making, I believe that anyone who wants to use their resources to have an impact should reflect on how they make their decisions. Of course, some, such as former Atlantic Philanthropies CEO John R. Healy, have argued that the act of deciding to spend down becomes a force in itself for greater strategic clarity – that an end date “concentrates the mind.”
Promising are the efforts underway to document the experience of foundations in the process of spending themselves out of existence, so others may learn from their example. Former CEP board member Joel Fleishman writes in a recent blog post about his work to document the experiences of the AVI CHAI Foundation. With research like this, choices about whether to spend down or not can then be made with the benefit of some wisdom derived from the experience of others and, ultimately, some insight on what makes most sense given the impact goals of a particular donor.
I hope that between a greater emphasis on how to be strategic with giving, Atlantic’s efforts to inspire donors to give while living, and more research on the topic by Fleishman and others, that we will indeed see “more people giving more money in a more thoughtful way.”
Andrea Brock is a Senior Research Analyst at CEP.
Disclaimers and Disclosures: Atlantic Philanthropies is a funder of CEP.