Third-level sector biggest beneficiary of Atlantic's funds


ANALYSIS:The impact of Chuck Feeney’s philanthropy has been enormous in Ireland

CHUCK FEENEY’S influence is everywhere in modern Irish life, but you’ll search long and hard to find evidence of it.

There are no Feeney wings of major buildings, no Feeney scholarships for bright students, not even a modest plaque bearing the name of the biggest single charitable donor Ireland has seen.

Yet the impact of his philanthropy via Atlantic Philanthropies is enormous, not just for the sheer scale of the giving – more than €1.25 billion on the island of Ireland – but also for the way in which this money has been deployed.

Feeney saw to it that his money attracted other money; in many cases his financial support was leveraged to bring in other funds, such as matching expenditure from reluctant government departments. Latterly his spending has been focused on areas outside the mainstream, such as human rights, where its impact has been strongly felt in changing public opinion.

With no major tradition of philanthropy in Ireland, politicians couldn’t believe their luck. Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern would later joke that Feeney’s generosity kept him busy for years as he went around opening university buildings funded by the philanthropist. “I think most people thought it was government money. I didn’t mind. Chuck never turned up,” he said.

The biggest single beneficiary of his generosity in Ireland has been the third-level sector. For years he provided millions of dollars for infrastructure, with the strict condition that the source of the funding stay secret. His foundation provided seed money for new libraries, science buildings and student villages on practically every campus.

The list includes libraries in four colleges, student accommodation in three, sports centres on five campuses and a veterinary college at UCD.

Later, Feeney moved into the area of postgraduate research, where Atlantic successfully urged the government to match the funds it was providing.

Among the major initiatives was Atlantic’s co-funding of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions in the seven universities and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Atlantic invested €178 million and this leveraged more than €1.1 billion in further investment from the government.

Atlantic co-funded the building of the National Centre for Sensor Research at DCU by providing about 50 per cent of the €10 million it took to build the centre, and contributing to the start-up costs of researchers. It also funded the Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research at UCD, TCD’s Institute of Neuroscience, and the Institute of Biopharmaceutical Sciences at the Royal College of Surgeons.

Many groups working with older people have Atlantic to thank for ongoing support, including Active Retirement Ireland, the Irish Senior Citizens’ Parliament, the Alzheimer’s Association and the Carers Association.

Another initiative that benefits from funding through Atlantic is the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda). The study is charting the health, social and economic circumstances over a 10-year period of more than 8,000 participants living in Ireland aged 50 or above.

NGOs working with children and on human rights issues have also benefited, including Amnesty International, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the Children’s Rights Alliance.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. There was the initial reluctance of politicians and civil servants to take seriously offers of help from an anonymous donor.

The level of support given by an Irish-American to organisations campaigning for political change has caused some unease. For three years Feeney funded Sinn Féin’s office in the US, though he also donated to loyalists seeking to move away from violence.

There was also Atlantic’s ill-fated support for the Centre for Public Inquiry, which was withdrawn after allegations were made by a government minister against its director, journalist Frank Connolly.

Atlantic’s board has seen a number of comings and goings in recent years, the effect of which has been to consolidate Feeney’s role in the operation.

While the business of giving away money might seem a simple one, it is anything but. Atlantic has put a lot of thought into the final stage of Feeney’s philanthropy. The tap will be turned off on some projects as the emphasis shifts to areas that will prove sustainable long after the financial assistance runs out.

Mary Sutton, Atlantic’s director in the Republic, says it has a lot of work to complete. “We will be sharpening our focus for maximum impact in the final years,” she says.