The Long Goodbye: Atlantic Philanthropies Approaching The End

There’s not really a handbook when you are the largest foundation to put yourself out of business.

More than a decade after The Atlantic Philanthropies decided it would give away every penny it had rather than operate in perpetuity, the foundation is moving closer to its end date and trying to develop best practices that other organizations can learn from or emulate.

“Harvest Time for The Atlantic Philanthropies,” by Tony Proscio, associate director for research at the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, was released today examining 2012-2013 at Atlantic. The 56-page report is the fourth in a series about the foundation’s wind-down.

The report outlines some of the shifts made by the board and changes to the original plans while also focusing on the human resources aspect of spending down the organization, balancing a shrinking grant budget with staffing and professional development.

“The final stage was to consist of three or four years spent winding down the detailed strategies that had dominated a ‘steady state’ of annual grant making,” before closing around 2017, according to the report. A new phase emerged with the board adopting a fourth stage – Global Opportunity and Leverage, or GOAL –“meant to be a final burst of activity and a new way of thinking about the foundations ultimately purpose and it would conclude.” The end date would remain the same but the method of ending would change, with a “crescendo of major grants and expansive ambitions,” rather than the gradual reduction originally envisioned.

As of the end of 2012, the most recent year available, Atlantic Philanthropies had net assets of approximately $1.4 billion – of which $764 million already has been committed to grantees. Since the organization decided in 2002 to commit all of its assets by approximately 2016, Atlantic has been on course to donate close to $7.5 billion by the time it closes.
Atlantic Philanthropies is aiming to wind down operations and conclude grantmaking by 2016 or 2017, with a lot of core programming winding down in the next year or two, according to Maria Pignataro Nielsen, human resources director for The Atlantic Philanthropies.

There are fewer than 70 employees now, with a headcount of about 55 expected by the end of the year, Nielsen said. Staff numbered closer to 140 about three years ago. Staff reductions occur twice a year – in June and December – in an effort to reduce anxiety or stress of employees regularly leaving various departments.

Senior management meets with employees to devise a roadmap and projected end date. At the end of their tenures, employees can apply for “fellowships,” in which the foundation will pay all or a portion of the employee’s salary and benefits at an outside organization for up to a year, provided that work is closely related to Atlantic’s program objectives. The position must be a new one and not displace an existing employee while also not paying more than other comparable positions at the same organization.

Nielsen said that the board has approved about five or six fellowships and over the next several months could get more as people leave the end of 2014 from Atlantic’s offices in Belfast, Dublin and New York City.