Atlantic quietly closes its doors in Ireland after 30 years of philanthropy

Chuck Feeney’s ‘historic act of extraordinary generosity’ financed transformational change

Atlantic Philanthropies, founded and financed by billionaire Chuck Feeney, gave away €1.1 billion in Ireland through 1,030 grants over 30 years. Photograph: Alan Betson

Atlantic Philanthropies, founded and financed by billionaire Chuck Feeney, gave away €1.1 billion in Ireland through 1,030 grants over 30 years. Photograph: Alan Betson


It ended as it began – quietly, low key, with no fanfare. The Dublin office of Atlantic Philanthropies closed this week as billionaire Chuck Feeney, who gave away his €7 billion fortune through it, would have wanted.

There was even a snowfall outside Atlantic’s offices in Dublin city centre on Wednesday evening, landing more and more heavily as the evening wore on as if to cover Atlantic’s departing tracks.

But the quickest thaw cannot erase the deep footprints left by the New Jersey-born Irish-American billionaire – on higher education, on human rights and social change, on supporting the country’s young and old.

The story of Feeney’s extraordinary contribution should be told and retold. He insisted on strict anonymity until the scale of his giving made this impossible.

His practice of “giving while living” set an example for the world’s rich. There are no buildings named after him, or statues in his honour. He has been a silent but towering partner.

With final cheques written – the last of €1.1 billion given away in Ireland through 1,030 grants over 30 years – Atlantic marked the Dublin office’s closure with a dinner in New York last week for its Irish board members.

Atlantic has been closing its global offices in recent years: the Australian office closed in 2012, Vietnam in 2013 and Northern Ireland in 2014. The Dublin office had just two staff when it closed.

“We slipped away quietly,” said Mary Sutton, Atlantic’s director for Ireland, after pulling the door behind her on the office near Fitzwilliam Square on Wednesday. The snowfall, she says, was a useful distraction.

Void left

The magnitude of the departure of this philanthropic giant from the Irish education, civic and charitable sectors has been keenly felt. And it will leave a void that will be hard to fill.

“A great man” was how Bertie Ahern described Feeney, who is now 86 and living modestly in a rented apartment in San Francisco.

The former taoiseach paid tribute to Feeney’s involvement with other wealthy Irish-American businessmen who had political clout in Washington that catalysed the Irish peace process.

Feeney, who funded Sinn Féin’s US office for its critical first three years in operation, helped pushed the party into the political mainstream and modernise republican fundraising efforts away from the tin cans passed around bars of Dorchester and Woodlawn.

When it came to education, Feeney made Ahern, as leader of the country, Atlantic’s partner in its greatest philanthropic drive. Feeney had seen the potential to make a difference in Limerick, a scrappy town with unfulfilled ambition and a passion for sport and music.

It was, he felt, a place where Atlantic could make “a real difference”. He helped transform the city’s college of higher education into a fully-fledged university, funding construction across its Plassey campus.

Beyond that, Atlantic spotted a broader opportunity to contribute to Ireland’s knowledge economy. In 1998, investment in Irish research was just 11 per cent of the European Union average, on a par with Bangladesh.

Government support

Through its programme for research in third-level institutions Atlantic invested €177 million between 1999 and 2001. Matching his money with government money was critical for Feeney.

“He wouldn’t contribute otherwise,” said Ahern. “Chuck didn’t like bureaucracies very much. He wanted to see the colour of your money, like a businessman. He wanted to see that if he was doing something, it was a policy and it was a policy of the government and that it had the support at the top level.”

The former taoiseach admired Feeney’s no-nonsense approach.

“He was a very straight talker. He didn’t believe in having 10 meetings; two were enough. He’d say: ‘This is my vision – now come up with an idea to make it work.’ He was an extraordinarily generous man,” he said.

Ahern witnessed Feeney’s acorns-to-great-oaks strategy in his own neighbourhood, watching how DCU “took off to a huge degree” and seeing how research fuelled commercial opportunities.

Trinity College Dublin received €207 million, University of Limerick €153 million, DCU €118 million, UCC €90 million and NUI Galway €67 million. They were transformed by Feeney’s money.

Feeney’s “historic act of extraordinary generosity” was uniquely recognised with an unprecedented honorary doctorate from nine universities on the island of Ireland in 2012.

“Among his many legacies, the one that would strike me most was actually by putting money on the table but requiring that other players would have to contribute as well. He forced collaboration, co-operation and innovation in a way that I don’t think would have happened otherwise,” said Ruairí Quinn, the former Labour minister for education.

Atlantic’s final challenge was to help wean the organisations it had helped off the Feeney donations. He wanted to give his fortune away in his own lifetime. In 2002, Atlantic decided its last cheque would be written in 2016.

Exit preparations

Preparations for “an exit” intensified from 2012 on: “We had to take account of that reality: how do we exit responsibly from all these relationships that we have built up?” said Sutton, who ran Atlantic’s Irish operations for almost a decade.

For years, the University of Limerick Foundation received €1 million a month. Realising that this was going to dry up, it prepared to seek funds elsewhere: from its board and network of graduates, corporate contacts, the wider Irish diaspora and the Ireland Funds – the philanthropic organisation regarded by many as “the only game in town now”.

“Will it be harder without Chuck Feeney?” said David Cronin, chief executive of the foundation. “Of course it will. It is always useful when you have a billionaire with a sweet tooth.”

One way Atlantic attempted to soften the blow of its departure was to draw government into its projects. This was to ensure Atlantic was not just creating pilots but developing approaches focusing on “lessons learned” and “outcomes rather than activities”. This was to “try and give the work we did the best chance of being embedded in governmental systems and therefore continuing into the future,” said Sutton.

Partnership grants with government were agreed across 19 areas, including early childhood, youth development and studies on ageing and dementia.

“Obviously, government resources are much bigger than any philanthropic resources, so our objective was: get those major volumes of resources behind practices that have been shown to work well,” said Sutton.

Loss of funding

For some organisations, while activities funded by Atlantic were effective, that still did not save them from the loss of funding, including public money provided to cover the shortfall left by Atlantic.

Young Ballymun received about half of its funding from Atlantic, €7.5 million in all over a decade. As Atlantic withdrew, the Department of Children stepped in but funding was cut back from an annual budget of close to €2 million to about 30 per cent of that amount in 2016. Staff numbers dropped from 23 to eight.

One popular programme, parent-child psychological support, where parents could bring their babies for six visits between the ages of three and 18 months to assess an infant’s development, was cut entirely. Thirty babies a month are born in Ballymun. More than 70 per cent of eligible parents attended.

“People were voting with their feet; they really valued the service,” said Cathy Kiernan, one of the co-ordinators at Young Ballymun.

“It was a huge loss,” said her colleague Hazel Murphy, an infant mental health co-ordinator.

Fiona Gallagher, project manager of Young Ballymun, said some of their activities under “prevention and early intervention” were embedded in school and health programmes but there had been “major gaps” left. “We are doing a lot with a lot less staff,” said Kiernan. “And money. obviously,” said Murphy.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone said her department would continue to fund the area-based childhood programme that Young Ballymun falls under until the end of 2018 and that she was looking to continue that investment into 2019 too.

Looking at Atlantic’s efforts more broadly, the Minister plans to develop on a website that will provide information on Atlantic services that worked so that it might support others.

“Atlantic wanted to find ways to complement the work of government or perhaps even to identify new ways of doing things in the hope that they would be mainstreamed, if found to work,” she said.

Since Atlantic did not need to raise funds, it could take long-term views and risks not easily managed by others. Human-rights groups, such as Amnesty International and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, were big beneficiaries. Its winding-down challenges this sector, too.

Feeney’s organisation, for example, encouraged the Immigrant Council of Ireland to merge with the Integration Centre. Less money meant fewer organisations but services should be protected and sustained, it believed.

Immigrant Council chief executive Brian Killoran acknowledges that Atlantic’s likes will not be seen again. His organisation must now make the case for more State funding: “How do we potentially make the argument that our services are essential?” The council has also looked at saving on costs, while the migrant crisis has brought new donors.

“We have noticed over the last couple of years that there is a new grassroots philanthropy emerging. It is not something that has died completely. It has slowed down but it is coming back,” he said.

Irish philanthropy

Figures show that Irish philanthropy still has a long way to go to catch up with the UK and the United States.

The Ireland Funds is the only other philanthropic organisation in Ireland that has come close to Atlantic’s contribution. It has raised $600 million (€492 million) in its 42 years in operation. Caitríona Fottrell, executive director of the funds, says the “enormous” hole left by Atlantic has put pressure on it. Close to 1,000 organisations approach the Ireland Funds every year.

“The gap that Atlantic left behind won’t be filled by any other one foundation. Lots of things will need to happen to fill the gap,” she says.

Fottrell believes that although the Irish are a charitable people, a better job needs to be done about to teach them about the importance of philanthropy and the role it can play in funding vital services across Irish society.

“We are a charitable nation but not necessarily a philanthropic nation so we react; people will throw money into a bucket for a crisis. That instinct to give, contribute and volunteer needs to evolve into something more mature and grow to add stuff on to it,” she said.

“If you look at what Atlantic did in human rights, third level, for the elderly, those are must-haves, they are not nice-to-haves.”

Now that Atlantic’s work is done, Mary Sutton is passing the baton to others. She concedes that there is “a big challenge for philanthropy in Ireland,” but hopes others might follow in Feeney’s footsteps.

“We would hope that others would look at Chuck and his legacy, what he set out to do and what he achieved, and will be motivated to try to contribute in some of the same ways,” she said.