ELIZABETH GARRETT: For this year's Trustee Council annual meeting, as Bob said, we are very privileged to have a special guest, Chris Oechsli, President and CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation founded in 1982 by our alumnus, Charles Chuck Feeney.
Now Bob has already mentioned Chuck. And as you know, he graduated, he was a fortune in duty free shopping, and he spent the last 33 years of his life, the most recent years of his life, giving that fortune away, a task he continues to work on even now.
The Atlantic Philanthropies is a Limited Life Foundation, has disbursed roughly $8 billion to support worthy projects around the globe. It will complete grant making by next year, and finalize its commitments and close its doors by 2020, in keeping with Chuck's of "giving while living" philosophy, which has inspired so many people, including fellow philanthropists Warren Buffett, Mike Bloomberg, and Bill Gates.
Atlantic is the largest Limited Life Foundation ever to undergo the process of disbursing all of its assets within the life of its founder. Its early giving was directed largely toward higher education, and it later expanded its priorities to include aging, children and youth, population health, and reconciliation and human rights. It works not only in the United States, but internationally in Ireland and Northern Ireland, Australia, Vietnam, South Africa, and elsewhere.
At Cornell you can see the effect of Atlantic Philanthropies and Chuck Feeney everywhere you turn. He has shaped virtually every aspect of Cornell, from the hotel school to the biological, physical, and computational sciences, as well the humanities and social sciences, to Weill Cornell Medicine. The support has given Cornell the means to dramatically change our approach to undergraduate education, to support athletics, and to keep doors open to students of all backgrounds.
Most recently, as Bob mentioned, it provided the critical help at just the right moment to allow us to compete successfully for Cornell Tech. This morning I'm very pleased to announce that Atlantic's leaders recently voted to donate the foundation's entire print and electronic archives to the Cornell University Library, along with a gift of $4 million to support preservation, interpretation, and promotion of these archives. Thank you.
This is an exciting gift. The archives document Atlantic's extraordinary philanthropic work around the world. It captures records of grants large and small, and it captures the foundation's unique strategic approach to grant making, its focus on big bet giving, giving for impact, and most importantly, Chuck Feeney's commitment to giving while living.
Through the archives, scholars and philanthropists of today and tomorrow will be able to learn and benefit from Atlantic's experience long after the foundation ceases operation. And providing the support that the foundation did to our library, we will be sure to make sure that the archive is rapidly accessible, broadly disseminated, and securely preserved.
As a deeply grateful grantee and as Chuck Feeney's alma mater, Cornell is proud and honored to play this role in stewarding for perpetuity Atlantic's profound legacy of support around the globe. Not only will this gift enhance our collections related to philanthropy, higher education, health care, and human rights in all geographic locations, but it will also allow us to celebrate the difference Chuck Feeney has made through his lifetime dedicated to others.
Now this new grant, I think, makes even more meaningful what we're about to experience today, and that is a welcome to Chris Oechsli, the President and CEO of Atlantic Philanthropies, and to hear from him more about the philanthropy and its new challenge of winding up and finishing giving while living as Chuck Feeney has taught.
Chris, who's here, has more than 30 years of experience in international business, law, philanthropy, and policy development in the US and internationally. He has been Associate Fellow and Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies and multi-issue think tank in Washington, DC. From 2007 to 2009 he was counsel to US Senator Russ Feingold, whom he advised on legislation and a range of domestic and international issues.
These experiences came after some 17 years as a senior staff member at Atlantic Philanthropies and related companies, developing and directing programs in the US and supporting Chuck Feeney's work in health, education, and medical research.
Chris is a graduate of the Occidental College in Los Angeles. He studied Chinese language at Georgetown, graduate studies at Columbia, and received an MA in Foreign Affairs and a JD from my alma mater, the University of Virginia.
Chris will provide us with an overview of the foundation and talk about some of the main issues. He and I will chat a little bit. And then we want to open this up so you can ask this extraordinary philanthropic leader questions about Atlantic Philanthropies' past, about its very challenging present, and what it hopes its future accomplishments and influence will be.
With that, let me thank and welcome Chris Oechsli to the stage.
CHRIS OECHSLI: Thank you, Beth. I'm very privileged and personally very pleased to be here. I've had a great couple of days these last two days, visiting with faculty and students that have really been inspirational. And so I want to thank all of you here for being part of this great event. It's my first time, as yours, Beth, and it's really been terrific. So thank you.
I'm here as a representative of Chuck Feeney-- I hope that Chuck is watching live stream, so maybe periodically you could stand up and wave and say hi to Chuck-- but also on behalf of more than 300 individuals who have served as directors and staff of Atlantic since we started in 1982. And I have to say, none are more exceptional than Frank Rhodes, who has served on our board as chair--
Frank served as director and share for more than 13 years at Atlantic and stewarded us through some very exceptional periods of development and initiatives . And of course, without Rosa, I suspect we wouldn't have gotten as far as we've gotten.
So thank you, Frank and Rosa. As President Garrett just announced, Atlantic has chosen the Cornell Library's division of Rare and Manuscript Collection to house and actively curate Atlantic's archives. After a yearlong search, we selected Cornell not because it was Chuck's alma mater, but because Cornell has the best digital resources in the country. And we had a chance to tour some of those in the last couple of days, and really truly exceptional platform to do the kinds of things that we hope to do with those archives.
It has not been in Chuck Feeney's personal style to speak about his work or to bring attention to himself. And that explained why we were anonymous for many years. But we're cognizant that in our final phase of operations and activity, that there's a lot to be captured and shared. I've been spending many of my last few months touring many of the countries in which we've made grants and established very dynamic relationships.
And I've been on a bit of a listening tour to understand what people would like to know from Atlantic's experience and work. And I'm here today in part on that listening tour, and so as Beth said, I'll be very interested in your comments and questions later on.
So the purpose of establishing the archives here was really to provide a platform, an accessible one, for future philanthropists. And to borrow a phrase from the Cornell counsel, to inform, influence, and inspire others. So we're very pleased to be in your company to be doing this, and to undertake this initiative.
Before I make any further remarks, I wanted to start with a short video that was produced last year for an event hosted by Forbes magazine, in which Warren Buffett presented to Chuck Feeney the Forbes Lifetime Achievement Award. So if we could show the video now.
[BEGIN VIDEO PLAYBACK]
-You start off with a game plan. There's logic in making things happen now, especially if now there are things out there that are necessary. And I'm not here to tell anybody what they should do with their money. If you make your money, you do what you want with it. But I think there is an obligation, certainly, for the haves to reach out and to look and see what they can do.
I think we don't realize the problems that are going to be facing, the need to support our kids in schools. Some of these kids had to ride bikes and some of them had never ridden a bike before. And of course, the joy of some child who finds out that he can ride a bike, that's like winning the lottery.
Any money that people give to any good cause, as long as it's well managed, is worthwhile.
Success is success, you know? If you achieve what you think you wanted to achieve, you've operated successfully. We tried to do that.
-A shy American billionaire is helping transform Queensland's medical research, and in doing so, he's saving lives.
-And he's 81 years old. Few people on Earth have given away more.
-The reclusive philanthropist donated $27.5 million to the improved facility.
-Queensland has benefited greatly from the American's generosity, which has seen him give away $6 billion around the world.
-Well, Chuck Feeney, who you mentioned, is one of the great philanthropists of the age.
-He is quite likely the world's most generous and modest donor. Chuck is the man who had it all and gave it all away.
-The most important thing for him now is to spread the gospel of giving while living, and to influence more people who have money to give it away, and to give it away wisely.
-Here was someone external to ourselves having faith in us. And the psychological impact was tremendous.
-Giving while dead you don't feel anything. But giving away today, you can see what it's going to do, and then you can modify your mistakes. And it's clearly more than money. It's satisfaction that you're achieving something that's helpful to people, and I think you do get satisfaction out of something that happens on your watch.
In the world we live in today, there's such a need to reach out and help people. The world is full of a lot of people who have less than they need, and each time you can address their problem, you help them to move forward and to feel that life can change, and I can change it.
-Chuck Feeney embodies the spirit of The Giving Pledge, and I have no doubt he's inspired many of the world's leading philanthropists. He was reluctant to tell his story, but I'm very glad he did, because it's changed the landscape of giving. He gave while he was living. He put his talent into it and picked important causes. And it'll have very positive impact for generations to come.
CHRIS OECHSLI: Chuck Feeney, Cornell, 1956. Chuck was the first in his family--
Chuck was the first in his family to attend university here at Cornell thanks to support from the GI Bill. And I think it was that opportunity that underpinned Chuck's empathy and vision for his future. In addition to becoming a very successful businessman, I think Chuck always had in his mind the idea to use wealth to help others and expand opportunity for others. And much of what we will talk about with respect to Atlantic, I think, reflects some of that opportunity experience here at Cornell.
In fact, Atlantic's very first grant was made in 1982, I think while Frank Rhodes was here, to establish The Cornell Tradition. And for 30 years, The Cornell Tradition has enabled thousands of students like Chuck who needed financial support to expand their opportunities, to widen and deepen their knowledge and experience at Cornell.
The thank you notes that Chuck continues to receive from Cornell Tradition recipients are a statement to the impact of that opportunity. I had the privilege in the last couple of days to meet with 20 or so of The Cornell Tradition Fellows, and I have to say it's a very humbling and inspiring experience to be with these individuals, very special experience for me.
Since the first grant in 1982, Atlantic and Chuck have invested nearly $1 billion in Cornell. We had our first office here in Ithaca, and as I said, Frank Rhodes was our chairman and served on the board for 13 years. So the relationship and the influence and the two-way street with Cornell has been really a significant part of Atlantic's life and activity.
As you know, and as Beth referred to, Chuck believes in big bets. He believes in dramatic changes. He believes in intervening in opportunities to make a difference in a big way. And we can see evidence of that on this campus.
But the biggest bet in the history the foundation was this $350 million grant to launch New York Cornell Tech, truly a visionary and inspired initiative that Chuck reflected on and studied for many months behind closed doors with David Skorton and others before succeeding in beating the competition. So it was an exciting initiative for Atlantic.
But behind these concrete initiatives, the values of the Cornell tradition-- and I think reflected in Chuck's experience and opportunity here at Cornell-- there's been a focus on some underlying themes and values in our grant making that we've characterized as opportunity, fairness, and equality. Atlantic's work on five continents has included efforts to bring systemic changes for those who've experienced less than equal opportunity or great injustice.
The philosopher John Rawls, who was a professor here at Cornell for many years, argued that justice is the first virtue of social institutions, and his work, A Theory of Justice, made arguments about what society should look like. One particular principle stands out. Rawls writes, the priority of fair opportunity-- a goal deeply rooted in Chuck's and Atlantic's DNA-- is critical to all we've done.
Rawls notes, "Those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune." He goes on to say, in what Rawls calls "the importance of preventing excessive accumulation of property and wealth, and of maintaining equal opportunities of education for all. Chances to acquire cultural knowledge and skills should not depend on one's class position, and so the school system, whether public or private, should be designed to even out class barriers."
The Cornell experience, for Chuck, informed and catalyzed hundreds of millions of dollars of what Atlantic and Chuck did after he left Cornell and after he began selling some of his business assets. Many of the facilities and initiatives that we see globally-- and we'll take a look at in a book that we'll share with you-- were really rooted in the experiences here at Cornell, investments in libraries, in research, investments in research, investments in recreational spaces for students, investments in dormitories, all of which contributed to an environment of learning and support and opportunity for young people.
These were integral to Chuck's makeup, and they were integral to many of the initiatives that Atlantic undertook in Australia, in Vietnam, in South Africa, in Ireland, some of them truly transformative, and a reflection, again, of Chuck's experience rooted here in Cornell.
The facilities that were built have not been monuments to Chuck, have not been monuments to the donor. You won't find Chuck's or Atlantic's name on any of the buildings. He believes, Chuck believes, that it's the people and activities in the buildings that count. Buildings are vehicles for change. They're tools for innovation in research, education, patient care, culture, and other activities undertaken for the benefit of the communities surrounding those facilities.
We recently produced a book we've entitled Laying Foundations for Change, about the work, and you can receive it this weekend somewhere in the lobby. And for those of you who are interested and don't want to carry a heavy book around, we can arrange to have one sent to you. These reflect some of the tangible facilities that Atlantic has funded.
But you'll see in that book the faces of the people who benefit from those facilities. And as I look out in this audience from some of the facilities that Atlantic has funded, I see some of the people who've benefited from this facility.
As we completed that book and surveyed what we had achieve-- and it's not something that Atlantic has done a good job of, because we always tend to look forward rather than backward-- my wife reminded me of a quote by the great American architect Daniel Burnham, who's the designer of iconic buildings in New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC, who said, "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood, and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans. Aim high in hope and work. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Think big."
Chuck would have said that, but to that he might have added, remember that our daughters and granddaughters are going to do things that would stagger us.
Chuck is the architect of big ideas like giving while living and things that last, like many of the facilities that surround us on the Cornell campus. But behind them, I have to emphasize, is this emphasis on opportunity and the search for fairness, and to enhance the opportunities of others who come after us to do better than we've done in our lifetimes.
I'm privileged to be part of that opportunity, as all of us are here today. I thank you for having hosted me. I thank you for making Cornell what it is, truly an inspirational environment. And I look forward to having a further discussion with Beth and all of you later this morning. Thank you.
ELIZABETH GARRETT: Thank you, Chris. That was terrific. And the video really captured Chuck. I'm going to ask Chris a couple of questions, and then we're going to open it up to the Cornellians here. I know you all have many questions.
Let me start, as was mentioned, the giving was anonymous for some period of time, including when you were working at Atlantic Philanthropies. Can you tell us more about why it was important for Chuck to be anonymous, and what some of the challenges were in that?
CHRIS OECHSLI: Yeah. Maybe we should get Frank on stage to share some of his experience there. I think anonymity suited Chuck, his style. He's just a low key person who would prefer not to have attention burden him and his activities. It allowed him a lot of freedom and independence to move about, to see things firsthand without the filters that come with formal presentations.
He's a real student, an observer, somebody who really wanted to take things in a natural way. And anonymity permitted him to be in places and to be interacting with people in a way where he could get a real sense of what was going on.
I think anonymity was also important in drawing others in. We didn't use the Atlantic name or Chuck's name to headline any of the things that we funded. And this gave opportunities for others who wanted to use their name to add to the project.
ELIZABETH GARRETT: What do you think, as you look back over the history of Atlantic Philanthropies, what do you see as the most transformative impacts of the foundation's activities, giving and support?
CHRIS OECHSLI: That's a real tough one, because I do think there have been a lot of successes. We can talk about the failures, too. But some of the most significant ones have been here at Cornell. The grant at New York Cornell Tech is really an exceptional one. I think that has to rank as a really distinctive and major initiative on Atlantic's part and Cornell's part. And now Dan Huttenlocher has the burden of proving it. We're very eager to follow and watch that project. That's truly a major one in the history of Atlantic.
Investments in higher education in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, were really exceptional. And Frank was very involved in that, in trying to bring and enhance a knowledge economy to Ireland by challenging the government to invest in research. And with relatively-- and I say relatively-- there were hundreds of millions of dollars involved on the part of Atlantic. We're able to leverage four or five times that amount by government to invest in universities and research and higher level institutions. That has proved to be a lasting and transformative investment.
But there are many others. I think the investments in Vietnam in primary health care at a time when the country was evolving and developing its health care system, and trying to emphasize the importance of prevention and intervention and community-based primary care in a systemic fashion has left a mark that's been very significant.
Some of the work that Chuck was personally involved in Northern Ireland to try to resolve some of the issues behind the troubles. Chuck's grandmother came from Northern Ireland. Chuck had a strong affinity for the country and really couldn't understand these deep divisions, and was instrumental in getting people to talk to each other. There was funding behind the scenes for both sides of the divide. There was support for bringing George Mitchell and President Clinton into the discussions, again, behind the scenes. But I think Chuck was quite a force in that, and I think that was a very satisfying development for him.
Those challenges continue. But I think Chuck's work and the support that Atlantic gave to many of the players did make a big difference.
ELIZABETH GARRETT: Now you mentioned in Ireland that not only were you involved, but you got the government to be involved in higher education. And I think one of the things that Atlantic Philanthropies has emphasized is that tri-partnership, if you will, between universities, government, and philanthropy and foundations. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Because I see that as maybe a trend in the future as we move forward. What advice do you have for universities and for foundations as they think about that kind of giving?
CHRIS OECHSLI: If you added up all the foundation money in the US or globally, it's still a fraction of what governments have in their budgets. So foundations can act as catalysts. They can prompt, they can promote, they can fund prototypes and provide evidence and examples of what works so that governments can come into the picture with some confidence of what is successful.
Foundations are different animals. We don't have constituents that vote for us. We don't have to satisfy the same kinds of constituents that university presidents and country presidents and legislatures have to deal with. So that gives us a little bit of flexibility, and hopefully nimbleness, in being able to catalyze these kinds of changes in higher education in particular.
But ultimately, it is about incentivizing government and partners to come in and participate. And so I think Chuck was very fixed on this notion that you didn't come in and do it all. You caught the wave, you built the wave, and you worked with government that was receptive. So you have to have a receptive environment.
In Ireland, I think there was a readiness for this. I don't think there was a sense of the scale that was possible for this kind of an investment. Certainly in Cornell, in working in the New York Tech project, working with city government and Michael Bloomberg being eager and open to have this initiative happen, were critical. So I think the elements for a successful intervention require an open government open to what you're seeking to achieve, and then building on that partnership.
But ultimately, foundations can't fund the long term for these kinds of initiatives. They can be catalysts, they can fund prototypes, they can be complimentary. But government's a very important player in this.
ELIZABETH GARRETT: You mentioned failure. But I'm going to ask the question so you can talk about both unexpected successes, but also disappointments. I do we learn a lot from things that we didn't anticipate when we started. So I guess that's my question. What are the biggest surprises to you as you think back over your history, both in terms of an investment or a grant that really moved in a more positive direction then even you anticipated, but also one that you were a little disappointed about the results and surprised in that way, because I think we can learn from both of those experiences.
CHRIS OECHSLI: That's really true. Again, I'd have to repeat that some of the work that we've done in Ireland has been surprising in its durability. Investments in facilities, investments in research to match government funding or to encourage matching by government, have been sustained. You can see in Ireland today a lasting impact from those investments, even with global recessions and economic challenges.
There's a level of confidence, there's a level of self-image that comes with this, where people recognize that they're capable of world class research, and that you don't have to leave the country to engage in that experience. So I think it's been surprising, the durability and the extent of the impact.
We've seen, I think, in South Africa some very significant changes in some of the advocacy activities that have helped to promote and sustain the promise of the South African constitution. South Africa remains a challenging environment, but I think some of the players that have been involved and continue to be involved in issues on promoting health and education for disadvantaged communities have been successful in influencing government expenditures in those areas. And that continues.
In the Republic of Ireland about five or six years ago, Atlantic was very involved in funding organizations around marriage equality at a time when it was very difficult, and questions of whether society was prepared to respond positively to those initiatives was uncertain. We, Atlantic, did not participate in funding the recent referendum. But these organizations that were funded by Atlantic were instrumental in giving voice to the communities that ultimately led to change in a dramatic vote of over 60% of the Irish population supporting marriage equality.
So these were surprises in the sense that you bet on people, you bet on organizations. You bring voice to people who will participate in the process to achieve change. But ultimately it's up to them. In this case, they were successful.
Where have we been less successful? We have a place on our website, which is going to be curated by Cornell, for the Top 10 Mistakes. But what we're wrestling with, and we may need some of your lawyers to advise us on this-- is we have to recognize that the mistakes may be ours. We don't want to be pointing out partners who shared our mistakes with us. And we have to be sensitive to their position in things that were less than successful.
So let me just describe, I think, some of the characteristics of our less successful activities.
ELIZABETH GARRETT: Very diplomatic.
CHRIS OECHSLI: But I promise you, there will be more, so stay tuned. I think sticking with a partnership, sustaining a relationship, not having one-offs where you give a grant without support or continued relationship or attention to that relationship, is often a characteristic of a less than successful venture or initiative.
I think there are inherent risks in grant making, as there are in any choices. You do your due diligence. You develop a sense of the environment, the context. And then you do your best in trying to support a player, a grantee, in what they do. In some cases those individuals or institutions can change. They can maybe even disappoint you.
I think what's been exceptional about Chuck is that Chuck was always betting on individuals, promising individuals, promising institutions. He was a real student, as I said, a real observer of the context and the players before he engaged. But at some point he bet on them. At some point he turned them loose. He didn't micromanage. And Atlantic, I think likes to think of itself as an organization that does that.
But inherent in that approach is a risk that once you do turn it over to somebody else, it may not go the way you hoped it would go. We've had a few of those instances. I like to point to, for baseball fans, to Babe Ruth. We remember Babe Ruth because of his home runs. We forget that he was also the strike out king. And to follow on the baseball analogy, if you get three out of 10 right, four out of 10 right, wow, you know?
So I think one of the things that has been exceptional about Chuck is, yes, we made mistakes, and things weren't realized in the way that we hoped they were. But that didn't daunt him, didn't prevent him from continuing to explore and take risks and bet on people and put wind in their sails, as he says.
ELIZABETH GARRETT: Let me ask one last question, and we're going to open it up to you guys, so be ready. Are we going to have people come to microphones, or we're passing out microphones? OK. We've got people to walk around, I think.
So let me ask-- one thing we haven't yet touched on is, Atlantic Philanthropies is what we call a limited life philanthropy. So you're now in the process of winding down. Your last grant will be in a year, and then you'll have some time to wind down.
While there have been some limited life foundations in the past, this is the largest such. And when you think about it, you think, well, how hard can that be to give away money? Gosh, that's got to just be easy. But you've been facing some real challenges in this lesson. I think we're going to see more of these foundations.
And again, I think one of the really exciting things, to me, about our having the archives and being able to work on that is to help other organizations in your situation think through, what are the challenges? What can we learn from Atlantic? What can they take with them? So talk a little bit about the challenges of being a limited life Foundation in the sort of twilight of your life.
CHRIS OECHSLI: One of the challenges is what we call it. The philanthropy sector refers to us as a spend down foundation. That's the term. It's a rather sexy sounding term. But it puts the emphasis on all the wrong things, spending and down. And we're not just about shoveling money out the door and, we're certainly not on a downward trajectory. We're seeking to maximize the effect of our grant making, to maximize the impact of what we hope to have even beyond our presence.
That's hard. Good grant making, a strategic grant making, is harder than making the money. And Chuck will say that, Andrew Carnegie will say that. I will say that, having worked on the business side as well as the philanthropic side, because the bottom line is different. It's much more nuanced, even amorphous. What you're trying to achieve is harder to measure. You certainly have measurements, but ultimately, you're betting on people and opportunity. And those are harder to gauge and measure, so it is difficult.
We have used limited life rather than spend down. I like to think of it as being more of an accelerated impact approach, that what you're really doing is, as Chuck has said, the needs are so great today that if you can have a meaningful impact on those needs today, it's like a stitch in time saves nine. And there is more money coming down the pike. The Giving Pledge is one example of that. There are others who will follow. We don't have to control all the giving.
What have been the challenges? Well, in addition to trying to get our lab grants right and have them be the most impactful they can be, it is about working with relationships that we've had for a long time, such as with Cornell. It's difficult. It's difficult to conclude those relationships. It's difficult to do that gracefully. It's difficult to work with people who have relied on you financially.
And so there's a lot of discussion that has to be had on what does life look like after Atlantic for some of our grantees, particularly in environments where reliance has been very high.
Keeping our staff engaged and excited even as we conclude our work. I think people are very pleased and privileged and grateful to be part of this enterprise, but they are thinking about what comes next. So working with our staff and trying to get the most from them even as they're thinking of their futures. We've had some long discussions with our staff about how to plan so that we can get the benefit of their experience while also being prepared to launch them into their next opportunities.
ELIZABETH GARRETT: I know, as one of the grantees, one way Atlantic Philanthropies will continue to have influence is, we will continue to move forward on the things that we've worked on together, right? Cornell Tech, our second land grant, will be a living testament to the work of Chuck Feeney and to Atlantic Philanthropies. So I know there are other organizations for whom that's true as well, and I know that that will be nice as a way to continue on.
CHRIS OECHSLI: I think one of probably the most important messages from this, and it's a personal one for Chuck to other people of means and significant wealth, is that you're not going to find a more satisfying use of your wealth than to devote it in your lifetime to these kinds of meaningful activities.
It's satisfying to earn wealth. It's satisfying to have some level of authority or power or influence. But I don't think there's anything more satisfying, and I think Chuck would say this, than to be engaged in giving in a meaningful way in your lifetime, and that's really the ultimate experience. And we'd like to try to convey that. And as I said, while Chuck is not a person who likes to toot his horn, we feel a responsibility to tell that story to inspire others.
And this is why we're so excited about having our archives here, so that we can explore ways of making that a living statement of what's possible with wealth.
ELIZABETH GARRETT: Well, we're glad to be your partner in that. With that, let me open things up. Do we have-- I can continue. I'm a lawyer, so I can continue to talk. But do we have some questions? We'll try to kind of go one, over--
AUDIENCE: A comment and a question. Chris, I think I speak on behalf of all of us when I say we really hope that you will extend our personal thanks to Chuck in terms of his generosity.
CHRIS OECHSLI: I think we can wave to him. I hope he's watching.
ELIZABETH GARRETT: I think he's watching, so he sees all of us waving.
AUDIENCE: Wonderful. But in terms of the giving, I noticed in looking at the slides, one of the comments was made is that there's so many that have so many needs. How do you try to identify those when I'm sure there are so many who request assistance and needs? How do you go about trying to decide where and how you make the decisions of who will be the fortunate ones, or the recipients? And what is the typical sort of timeline in terms of what it takes before you make a final decision?
CHRIS OECHSLI: I think that's the most difficult challenge in philanthropy. We have really limited resources and yet the needs are so great, and we have to make choices. Inevitably those will be subjective. They'll be informed by what we know.
In the case of an individual donor, and I think Chuck will say this, and he said this in his letter to The Giving Pledge, you begin with what you know. You want to work in an environment that you have some confidence that you can appreciate what the needs really are and what you can achieve.
Speaking, I think, for Atlantic and Chuck-- I mean, there are many different approaches. So what I'm saying is, our approach, one approach is, where is the opportunity ripe to make change? Where can you really achieve an outcome with the resources you have and within a reasonable period of time?
So there are lots of opportunities to continue to fight the fight that may be an uphill and long-term fight that you may not be able to meaningfully move the needle. There are other opportunities, maybe, where the stars are aligned, the context is ripe for change.
I think the example I gave of higher education in Ireland, a receptive government, really a willing population, a very capable population eager to have this opportunity. I think some of the work that Chuck did in Australia on partnering with government on medical research, similarly, in Queensland State in Northeast Australia, the government was ready to develop what they called the smart state. And along comes Chuck, and noticed that hunger and eagerness and found a willing partner.
And so I think recognizing the opportune moments in the environments in which you work so that change is likely to be achieved with additional input. That would be one. Certainly in terms of themes, again, that's a subjective thing. Atlantic didn't get involved in climate change, not because it doesn't matter but because it wasn't something we were familiar with, knew a lot about, wasn't directly part of Chuck's experience.
But Chuck knew about higher education, and he knew about health, or he learned about it. And so we tended to focus a lot in education and health in much of our work. In a more granular way, making choices on grants is very hard. But if you start with an outcome that you're trying to achieve and then to think about how to achieve that outcome, in some cases we've developed very thoughtful strategic plans.
But in other cases we've been very opportunistic. And by being opportunistic, I don't mean casually opportunistic. I mean having sort of an informed intuition that something was ready and ripe for action, I think. That's a phrase I often use to describe Chuck, is this informed intuition. He did his homework. He was an observer. He spent a lot of time watching, studying, reading. But when something appeared to be ready to act on, he moved. So I would say informed intuition was part of an opportunistic approach to what we did.
On the other hand, there were times where we sat down and spent two years crafting a strategy on trying to achieve certain outcomes. Most recently we invested in school discipline reform in the US, zero tolerance policies that were marginalizing kids of color and the school to prison pipeline. And we sat down and figured out, how would we develop a strategy to change this policy to try to maximize the opportunities of kids of color to succeed in school.
And it was a quite thoughtful strategy that involved looking at how to work with government and influence policy, how to develop evidence and shine the spotlight on the problem, how to work with schools, school superintendents, curricula at universities, and education that would provide strong alternative methods of dealing with school discipline forms. It was a cluster of strategic threads aimed at addressing the outcome.
So that was one example of a very strategic approach which took some time to develop. But once it was developed, the funding followed within a four- to five-year period and had a real impact.
AUDIENCE: A note of thanks and appreciation and bit of a grantee report from the Ithaca community. The Atlantic Philanthropies was instrumental in helping to launch our local community foundation 15 years ago. And we're so excited about the ability that that grant enabled us to grow assets of more than $14 million, cumulative grants of $8 million, and most importantly, the opportunity for local folks to experience the joy and challenges and great opportunities of philanthropy locally. So just a note of appreciation for that. Thank you.
CHRIS OECHSLI: Thank you. Thank you.
ELIZABETH GARRETT: That's great. We have time for the two questions that are here. So I'll start with you and then we'll go over there.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. Good morning. I do want also want to echo the thanks. I'm a Tradition Fellow alumnus. I would not be standing here today without the support of Chuck and the Atlantic Philanthropies, so thank you very much.
My question is on the broader field of philanthropy. We obviously explored a little bit about how big of a deal this is, and how it's unprecedented in terms of the size of the endowment that has been given away, or the amount of giving. What is the rest of field of philanthropy thinking, and what kind of questions are they asking you and your colleagues at the sea level? What are they just really exploring in terms of their own strategic philanthropy, whether it's a limited life foundation or not? I'm just curious what kind of impact you're having on the broader field of foundation and philanthropic giving.
CHRIS OECHSLI: Those are good questions. And we have to wait and see. The questions we get are often more about the how or the why, not necessarily the what. People have their own ideas of what matters to them and what they want to invest in. But they're interested in, how did you make these choices? How did you organize your strategies? How did you staff to achieve your outcomes? How big a staff do you need?
So we're getting a lot of questions from emerging philanthropists about how did we do it. And this is another reason why we think the archives are important. In our final year, we're trying to synthesize much of our experience, including our strategic approaches, our operating experience, some of the nuts and bolts. It's surprising how modest amounts of information there are about how to go about doing philanthropy effectively.
But you can't dictate. You can't lecture. You also have to have the human stories. And so we're trying to put together a combination of what we call playbooks, how we went about doing it. Working with government, for example How did we work with government? What worked? What was successful?
Frank wrote a great paper on the program for research at third level institutions in Ireland, which I think has been very effective. And we'd like to synthesize material like that and make it accessible so people can appreciate the how does one go about it. But it's a diverse and huge sector, and we don't pretend to have the answers, only to share what our experience has been.
ELIZABETH GARRETT: And our final question.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. So first off, like to say that, also as a Tradition Fellow, very grateful for the great work that you've done but I think first a quick comment, in that the idea about sharing the story is probably as important as almost any of the other work that you've done, simply because I think if you believe what you read and see on television, wealth seems to be equivalent to conspicuous consumption.
And I think that the contrary message to that is really muted in the world today. So part of your great work, I think, is being here today, and the bravery of Chuck and Atlantic and you to be here today, and what you've done, and getting the message out by modeling that behavior is probably as impactful, I would say, as all the great work that you're doing in other ways by writing checks. So hats off to you in that regard.
Second piece is, to adopt a model from more traditional investing models, the idea of tranching investments. You made a very interesting comment that you do a lot of the up work front, and you identify usually the individual, if not the organization, and then write a check.
Traditional investing models also tranches out the investments in smaller chunks to milestones so you see that you're making progress. Because in the types of problems you're trying to solve, when you write the check to the entrepreneur or the institution, as soon as they turned around put it to use, they face headwinds, right? Those are the challenges you're trying to solve. So the challenges are very big, and they're inevitable.
So you've made a specific decision, though, to take that approach of, write the check at first and then sort of see how it goes. Why did you take that approach rather than sort of the more, if I can call it traditional investing approach, of taking a larger number, but metering it out to milestones.
CHRIS OECHSLI: I'd have to say that the first grant to The Cornell Tradition $7 million. That was a big bet right off the mark. But there are instances where we've kind of dipped our toe in the water and explored on the funding side before we ramped up to large grants.
But in all cases, I would say that there was a lot of discussion and due diligence and observation about what was happening. So there was a fairly high degree of confidence it was a risk worth taking.
This notion of exiting is a hard part, and I think we're going to probably write a lot about that, where it worked well and where it didn't work well, where we may have exited prematurely, where we may have departed without sufficient awareness or sensitivity of what our departure would mean to our grantees in the field. We've written a little bit about this, and you'll find some of that material on our website.
I would say, though, that we've done a variety of approaches, but at the root of it has been an appreciation of what we were getting into. I do think that, maybe going back to one of our regrets, is I wish we'd started a little bit earlier in anticipating, projecting what we would do towards the end. I sort of feel like our runway is just a little too short.
So I think taking the time to understand how to get in, taking the time to understand how to get out, are critical activities. And I would say that we got it right much of the time, but not all of the time.
AUDIENCE: Great. Chris, thank you. I look forward to seeing the website. Thank you.
ELIZABETH GARRETT: And Chris, let me thank you again, and the foundation, for entrusting us with the archives and in making us a partner, and getting the word out about the amazing work that Atlantic Philanthropies has done, and also more about Chuck Feeney's influence on so many parts of our nation. We are proud and grateful for your confidence.
We're also very grateful for your time today. I think this was a terrific way to learn more about Atlantic Philanthropies and our terrific alumnus, Chuck Feeney, and the impact you've had around the world. And I just wanted everyone here to know-- Chris has referred to this-- Chris and the Philanthropies has generously made available copies of their book, Laying Foundations for Change.
And it's available in the Trustee Council annual meeting registration area. As Chris mentioned, we can also arrange to have it sent to you if it's too heavy for your bags. It'll take you over that 50 pound and you're in trouble. But I think that's going to be a wonderful way to solve--it's a really terrific book, just like the video was. And I really thank you for making that available.
And again, let us all join in thanking Chris Oechsli for this terrific
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Christopher G. Oechsli, President and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, spoke at Cornell Oct. 23, 2015 as part of the university's Trustee-Council Annual Meeting. He was introduced by Cornell President Elizabeth Garrett.