It’s No Secret: The Atlantic Philanthropies And The Benefits And Drawbacks To Operating Anonymously
There was a time, and not that long ago, when our strict adherence to operating anonymously would have made it impossible for The Atlantic Philanthropies to participate in a forum like this. In fact, for our first 15 years, we didn’t publicly say a word about the size of our endowment, our mission, our grantees, and our most closely guarded secret of all, the name of our donor, Charles “Chuck” Feeney, who established Atlantic in 1982. Staff and grantees were sworn, in writing, to secrecy. Even my children thought I might be working for the CIA. Certainly, the efforts to maintain secrecy were effective. In 1988, Forbesmagazine continued to list Chuck as one of the world’s wealthiest individuals even though he had divested himself of all his businesses and irrevocably dedicated them to philanthropy.
It was Chuck who made both the decision to operate anonymously and ultimately to reveal himself as the “mysterious” donor behind The Atlantic Philanthropies. While the first was for deeply personal reasons, and the other because of changed circumstances, both decisions had major implications for how Atlantic operated. Similarly, as I’ll show, there were benefits as well as trade-offs during the years of anonymity and after.
Why Was Atlantic Anonymous for Nearly Half Its Existence?
Throughout his life Chuck has been a man of few words and he hasn’t spoken much on the record about his preference for anonymity. But he succinctly summed up “why” he chose anonymity a few years ago during a conversation we filmed for an employee conference:
“I thought it would allow me to pursue my interests without being beholden to people…having to spend time doing things I didn’t enjoy as much as finding opportunities where we could achieve results.”
Chuck’s preference for seeking out philanthropic investments largely under the radar mirrored his personal disposition to operate in the modest style that was most comfortable to him. As with his business, his low profile allowed time to observe and learn and avoid signaling his intentions until he was ready to act. His stealth-like approach to giving enabled him to:
- Conduct his own reconnaissance, most often in places he knew and where he felt a connection due to previous business investments
- Look for what he called “ripe” investment opportunities—ones that offered inflection points where conditions were aligned for success, represented good value for the money, and where Atlantic’s grants could make a deep and lasting impact
- Take the time to learn all he could about promising people and programs that piqued his curiosity—some to whom he was formally introduced through a friend or colleague, or others he had discovered through a chance meeting, or had read about in a newspaper or magazine
- Be certain the investment opportunity was thoughtful, clear, and convincing and the outcomes seemed achievable, so at the end, there would be something to show for it
There were other reasons, too, that Chuck favored anonymity. He has never been comfortable in the public spotlight and he disliked “blowing his own horn.” He also was concerned about the safety of his family and didn’t want his wife or children to be potential kidnapping targets. Above all else, Chuck took great satisfaction being able to give generously without expectation of any personal recognition. Being anonymous, he would joke, meant he would get credit for all anonymous gifts. Today, after investing more than $2.8 billion in capital projects around the world, not a single building bears his name.
Anonymity served Chuck well. As he also told me a number of years ago, anonymity allowed Atlantic “to focus our attention on the problem. We didn’t have people trying to get our ear to advance their causes, some of which are genuine, some of which are just self-serving.”
What about Atlantic? What was the foundation’s assessment of anonymity? Was it helpful? Or a hindrance? Or did it make any difference at all? As part of a series of interviews we conducted for an Atlantic publication, “2020 Hindsights: Top 10 Lessons,” the consensus was that anonymity was a double-edge sword. For all the benefits of anonymity, especially the freedom it offered to Chuck, there were some downsides. Grantees, for example, were sworn not to reveal Atlantic’s name—upon penalty off losing their grant. As a result, they didn’t know they had a common funder. For some grantees, not knowing the names of other organizations receiving support for work they were doing on similar issues meant lost opportunities to learn from each other, share common goals or collectively amplify their efforts.
We also heard that anonymity proved especially challenging in Northern Ireland, where Atlantic had been operating since 1991. Due to the atmosphere of suspicion and distrust dating back to the Troubles, some groups that accepted Atlantic’s money—and with it the condition that they could not disclose the source of it—feared they would be accused of accepting funding from disreputable sources.
In hindsight, we concluded that donors who favor anonymity need to be aware of the tradeoffs being made, including risking public fallout from the lack of accountability, as well as what I just noted, the difficulty it can create for grantees.
Why Did Atlantic Go Public?
Several developments converged for Chuck and Atlantic to shed the cloak of anonymity. First, were the contentious negotiations leading to the sale in 1996 of what had been Chuck’s holdings in Duty Free Shoppers (DFS) but that Atlantic now owned. Disagreements among DFS shareholders led to public disputes and there was the likelihood that court action would reveal that Chuck had secretly transferred his shares to Atlantic years earlier. There was also a chance that such a disclosure might raise public suspicion that the foundation’s money was tainted, otherwise why had it been kept hidden from the public for so long?
As a result, Chuck and other Atlantic executives decided to get ahead of the story by taking it directly to the New York Times. As Conor O’Clery writes in his 2007 biography of Chuck, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, on January 22, 1997 “with jet engines screaming in the background, Feeney lifted a pay phone in the San Francisco airport and by prior arrangement called the New York Times. He told [journalist] Judith Miller he was prepared to reveal his secret to the world.” The next day under the headline, “He Gave Away $600 Million, and No One Knew,” the newspaper reported:
“Over the last 15 years, a businessman from New Jersey has given away more than $600 million to universities, medical centers and other beneficiaries — but has done it in such secrecy that most recipients never learned who their benefactor was.
The donor, Charles F. Feeney, who made his fortune with a string of duty-free airport shops, covered his tracks so well that business magazines for years have estimated his net worth in the billions, not realizing that he had transferred most of his assets to his two charitable foundations and is actually worth less than $5 million.”
Although Atlantic’s secret was out in 1997, it took the foundation until mid-2001 to formally lift the prohibition on grantees identifying Atlantic as a funder. Even with anonymity lifted, Atlantic continued to keep a low public profile. As Harvey Dale, Atlantic’s founding president, wrote in a June 2001 memo to staff announcing the foundation’s new anonymity and confidentiality policy:
“Although we will no longer act anonymously, we will retain our current operating style. We expect you to adhere to our core values of humility, modesty, and personal and institutional selflessness. In practice, these values mean that you should not seek credit or recognition for supporting our grantees, whether for yourself or for The Atlantic Philanthropies. Instead, we should focus attention on the work of the recipients and the role of their other supporters.”
Dale’s last point is especially important. Having spent so many years as an anonymous foundation, one characteristic of Atlantic that has remained constant is our belief that our work is about our grantees. It’s not about Chuck or our staff. One of Chuck’s earliest and most enduring beliefs, one which has guided much of Atlantic’s work over the years, is that success comes from finding people you trust, who have great ideas and the skill to implement them. Give them the money and support to get the job done.
While shedding anonymity pushed Chuck reluctantly into the spotlight, a motivation to do so was the opportunity to highlight Giving While Living and inspire others with wealth to use it during their own lifetimes to help people. Giving While Living was also the driving force behind the Board’s 2002 decision—advocated by Chuck, who wanted the entire foundation’s endowment invested during his lifetime—that Atlantic would complete all grant commitments by 2016 and cease operations by 2020.
As I noted earlier, Chuck has never been one to brag or call attention to himself, but you can’t be associated with a foundation that publicly is awarding as much as $300 million a year and not attract some attention.
One of those who was fascinated by Chuck’s story was journalist Conor O’Clery. O’Clery had first met Chuck in 1994, and like most who had read about him in Forbes, he thought he was a billionaire, and didn’t have a clue about his secret philanthropy. Over a series of lunches years later, O’Clery convinced Chuck to tell his life story in The Billionaire that Wasn’t.Chuck agreed to do so, believing it would be an opportunity to promote the idea that people with wealth should use it during their lifetimes to better serve humanity.
Needless to say, Chuck has been an inspiration for other philanthropists, among them Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, both of whom call him their hero—and something that neither would have been able to say if Atlantic’s giving had remained secret. Gates and Buffett also say Chuck was an influence on their decision to start the Giving Pledge. Ironically, Chuck initially declined to be a signatory to the pledge, but this time it wasn’t out of discomfort of being in the spotlight. Instead in a letter he wrote to Gates, after agreeing in 2011 to sign the pledge, he said his reluctance was due to the fact he “had already transferred virtually all of my personal and family assets to The Atlantic Foundation (the precursor to The Atlantic Philanthropies) over 25 years ago.” Adding that he could not “pledge that which I already have given,” the letter expressed his “enthusiastic support for this effort” and his “personal challenge and encouragement for Giving Pledge donors to fully engage in sustained philanthropic efforts during their lifetimes” just as he has done.
Separately, for Atlantic, the largest foundation to date to commit all of its assets and put itself out of business, it’s important to be able to share about our work, especially lessons learned and insights we’ve gained that might help donors and foundation leaders with their philanthropy. Had we chosen to stay silent, we would have taken all that with us when we completed our work. But now there’s a chance some of that knowledge will contribute to the deliberations and choices others will make about their philanthropy in years to come.