Interview – Gara LaMarche

Gara LaMarcheGara LaMarche joined The Atlantic Philanthropies as President and CEO in April this year. As he prepares to guide Atlantic through the spend down of its endowment over the next ten years, Caroline Hartnell talked to him about the challenges he faces; the advantages and disadvantages of working for a limited-life foundation; the similarities and differences between the approaches of the two living donors he has worked for – George Soros at the Open Society Institute and now Chuck Feeney at Atlantic; and what it’s like to work for a living donor.

Starting with a general question, you’ve got £4 billion to spend in the next ten years, rather a lot of money. What are the biggest challenges you face?

The biggest challenge faced by anyone responsible for spending a lot of money is to try to spend it effectively and leave something behind. Very generally, Atlantic is bound by its mission statement to try to make a lasting impact and focus its resources on the most disadvantaged, vulnerable populations. We have strategies in place and my job is to ensure that they are the right strategies, with the right impact, and that resources are focused on the people most in need. To do this well will be an exhilarating challenge.

Your previous jobs have focused on human rights and social justice. What do you bring from this experience to Atlantic in the way you approach grantmaking?

Atlantic is one of the largest human rights funders in the world, spending $50 million a year on human rights in the United States, South Africa, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. However, human rights is an international system and I’d like to ensure that in addition to having an impact in these countries, we are attentive to the global position in which they operate and build on our country work to make connections globally and share lessons learned.

I am keen to view the range of issues Atlantic deals with through more of a human rights lens. For example, children’s advocates in the Republic of Ireland see their work as a human rights issue. The US has a very different culture in which economic and social rights are seen – if recognized at all – as quite distinct from political and civil rights. South Africa is another country with a very holistic approach, where a whole range of issues, such as health, are seen in the realm of rights.

Atlantic may try to do more in this area and think more about the way in which the other things it does – youth, ageing, health – are connected to rights or could be framed in rights terms. This isn’t necessarily a profound policy change about where money goes and what we support, but really a different way of looking at things.

All the work I’ve done since leaving college – for example with Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union – has been about supporting people who are fighting for their rights, or struggling for justice, or trying to achieve some equity or access. Organizations like these support others working on the frontline, people who are taking responsibility for their own lives.

I think philanthropy at its best does that. It has a different set of tools at its disposal – money, the platform, the voice, the convening power. I guess I see my work in the same way – to me it’s of a piece with what I’ve done all through my career, just from a somewhat different platform.

Following up what you said about different attitudes to human rights in South Africa and other countries where there’s a much more holistic view of civil, social and economic rights, do you intend to feed back that sort of view into your work in the US, where there’s much more separation?

Yes, I think that’s fair to say. There’s been a move in the US in recent years to try to bring a human rights approach to many social issues. It’s a very powerful way of looking at the world that’s beginning to appeal to many people. I think we’re very much part of that trend; Atlantic has just made a grant to the US Human Rights Fund, which promotes human rights work by various NGOs in the US.

The US is peculiarly insular and thinks itself exceptionalist in many ways, particularly regarding lessons to be learned from other parts of the world and attitudes to human rights. We’re a global foundation that happens to have a significant presence in the US and I happen to be an American, but I don’t see Atlantic as an American foundation. I see it as a global foundation that can use its global vantage point to open up debate in the US, which in some respects is less advanced than some of the other countries in which we work.

You also said you wanted to see yourself as working in a more global space. Do you think Atlantic – along with most other foundations – is somehow missing an opportunity to communicate what it has learned more widely?

Atlantic has a peculiar history of communication because we were an anonymous foundation for a good deal of our early life. We were actively not communicating because we didn’t want anyone to know they were getting money from us. John Healy, my predecessor, made great strides in bringing Atlantic out of anonymity to a more transparent mode.

We’re building on that and the board know they have hired somebody used to speaking out and they want me to do that. One mechanism we’ve just launched is a bi-weekly website column that I will use to highlight the work of our grantees, the challenges they’re facing, and the victories they’re achieving. That’s just one way we hope to amplify what we’re learning.

We are also developing a series of publications to help us share our knowledge more broadly. Atlantic has a pretty sophisticated approach to assessing our investment, and to strategic learning, and we will have a lot of data coming in over the next five to ten years. Like other foundations, we have done a poor job of sharing work broadly in the past, but we are diligent about accumulating knowledge because we want to learn for ourselves what’s working and hope our grantees do that. We have an obligation to share that as broadly as possible, so there’ll be a lot more coming from Atlantic along these lines to considerably step up the communication of what we are learning.

What do you see as the biggest advantages of Atlantic’s commitment to spend down its endowment as opposed to carrying on as a perpetual foundation?

The biggest advantages are probably concentration of focus and a deeper conversation about impact than sometimes one has in a perpetual foundation. It concentrates the mind on what you’re trying to accomplish in a given period of time. We are spending at a rate that makes us one of the largest foundations in the world while we’re in existence. But there’s no necessary connection between the amount of money you spend and effectiveness. Properly spent, a large amount of money can really change the dynamics of fields. If we do it right, we can have a greater impact than a perpetual foundation because more resources are available to us over a period of time.

New wealth is being created all the time, and Chuck Feeney, Atlantic’s founder, believes very strongly that while we need to ensure that there are resources available to be trained on future problems, we have many urgent problems now, and the more people can use their resources to focus on them now, the better. So that’s what we’re trying to do.

Correspondingly, do you see any disadvantages – for example, that there might be too much focus on achieving a visible legacy?

There are disadvantages potentially. A legacy can be a very inhibiting factor. A limited lifespan can, but doesn’t necessarily, liberate you to take risks. A danger of being obligated to spend a lot of money in a set time is that it can push you to be more conservative because you need to spend large amounts of money, and the kinds of places that can absorb large amounts of money are not necessarily risk-taking institutions.

Human institutions too concerned with their legacy can be paralysed. My message to staff is that this should be a joyful exercise – we have a wonderful opportunity to make an impact with a lot of money, let’s have fun while we’re doing it, let’s be creative.

Is there a danger that because of the degree of focus you might be less able to respond to emerging needs, even during Atlantic’s limited time span?

Atlantic has gone from being a foundation that was often opportunistic, in the best sense – take the work with higher education in Ireland in its earlier anonymous life – to being a foundation that is quite admirably strategic and focused. Virtually all funds are dedicated to the four areas of programme emphasis.

What I’m about to do with Atlantic, with support from the board and staff, is to change the dynamic a little. I don’t propose to end the focus, and it’s unlikely we will make significant adjustments in the kinds of things we support or the locations we work in – though we will look closely at what we are doing and make sure that the strategies are the right ones for the future.

But what I do want to do is open up some more space for new initiatives. I think Atlantic is big enough to do both things – to focus in several areas in considerable depth and to devote large or small amounts of money to shorter-term initiatives that meet emerging needs. These will advance our mission and values, and will not be inconsistent with our programmes, but they will not necessarily be contained within them.

We will seek more opportunities for cross-programmatic and cross-regional work. We don’t do much that builds on synergies among our different areas – youth, ageing, human rights, population health – and there are many opportunities to cross those boundaries. There may also be special initiatives.

What sort of special initiatives are you thinking of?

For example, if we had been thinking this way after Hurricane Katrina we might very well have decided to pull together significant resources for an initiative over a couple of years. We did some work anyway, but we might have looked at it in a different way and seen it as an opportunity to do something significant about the underlying problems of race, poverty and class in the US as represented by the response to Hurricane Katrina. It wouldn’t necessarily fit within any of our programme focuses but would be a very important thing to do.

I’m questioning right now whether we could do more in Northern Ireland. We have a long history there and are significantly involved in human rights and other issues. With a new government that’s off to a good but fragile start, could Atlantic be doing above and beyond what we’re doing now?

We need the capacity to ask ourselves those questions. We have the resources, we just haven’t organized them in a way that permits us to be very flexible. We’re not going to go overnight from being a highly focused foundation to one that is more opportunistic, but we’re going to try to do both – I think we have the capacity.

Final question on disadvantages of limited life: is there a danger of swamping grantees with too large grants that aren’t sustainable in the long term or that put off other funders because they already have so much?

I know enough about philanthropy to know there’s certainly a danger. I don’t yet know enough about the impact of Atlantic’s grants to know whether this has been a concern here. I do know Atlantic does its best to mitigate that concern by careful planning with grantees about how to absorb money over a period of time, using strategic and business plans that help identify opportunities for sustainability.

The question of how Atlantic’s work can be sustained after we are no longer a significant funder is one that is very much in everyone’s minds, so we’re beginning to have conversations in all the fields in which we operate about what sustainability looks like. We are the biggest funder in many of the fields and most of the countries in which we work; with that comes many obligations.

Atlantic looms very large in Ireland and we are working very hard to help build additional philanthropy in Ireland, for example by partnering with the One Foundation – which is also a limited-life foundation. We’re trying hard to support philanthropy generally wherever we operate and to ensure the things we do don’t just disappear once we leave.

A separate question is about the relation of scale and impact and whether you can give somebody too much money. You don’t want people to be too dependent on you or to grow so fast they are crippled under the weight of the money. I don’t see many signs of this, but it’s certainly something to be on the lookout for.

Has anything about Atlantic surprised you?

Well, I have been surprised by the sheer scale of the involvement and impact in so many places. I was familiar with Atlantic’s work in the US and knew of its role in Ireland, but to see its impact in South Africa and Vietnam has been enlightening – and, yes, surprising in the sense that we have more of an imprint than I’d even realized.

You’ve come from a very different organization but another one with a living donor. Is there anything you could say about the differences or similarities between Chuck Feeney’s involvement in Atlantic and George Soros’s at the Open Society Institute?

I think there are some differences that might not be obvious. George Soros provides the money to the OSI on an annual basis. He’s very generous, but continues to be a wealthy man. Though he’s hired professional staff and a board full of substantial people, Soros chairs the board and takes a very active role.

The Atlantic board is similar but Chuck Feeney has a kind of Franciscan, Gandhian style. He transferred virtually all his assets to Atlantic some years ago and now lives very modestly. He is a member of the board but not the chair. He is a quiet board member but a very respected one – revered, I think – and he’s not very interventionist. He’s chosen a board and staff that carry out his vision with the money he gave. Feeney has a founding chairman’s budget and recommends some grantmaking, but overall he has a very different relationship to the philanthropy.

Soros, because it’s his money and he is in effect running the place as chair of the board, will launch initiatives and have quite an impact. Feeney has areas on which he particularly focuses but what he’s done is set the tone for Atlantic’s philanthropy – the strategy of ‘giving while living’ and the focus on disadvantage and need come directly from him. The relatively modest scale of the foundation staff and the emphasis on the grantees also derive quite directly from the tone he has set.

Do you think having a living donor gives the opportunity to change direction in a considered way, which might be more difficult at an endowed foundation?

Yes, I think it can be more difficult. People worry about intervention by living donors, and maybe that cuts against a certain kind of professionalism. I know a lot about the boards and directors of various foundations and I would not trade my experience at OSI or here. Many traditional boards without a living donor are very meddlesome or change their minds all the time. The pluralism of philanthropy means that you can find instances of this in every model.

I think the kind of living donor that both Feeney and Soros represent are a perfect combination. I’m not saying this to ingratiate myself. I worked with Soros and I’m working with Feeney’s foundation so it would be unusual for me to be critical publicly even if I felt that way, but actually both of them have been very liberating to work for.

My nature and background is to be an activist and I’ve felt completely comfortable first at OSI, now at Atlantic. I feel very strongly, based on my conversations with the board, that we will be able to continue, as we have in the past, to move boldly to deal with the problems we’ve been charged to deal with. I think that’s not exclusively due to having a living donor but it’s a big element of why that’s so.

Are there any disadvantages to running a foundation that’s got a living donor?

That’s a strange question to answer on the record! To tell you the truth, I prefer it as it gives a degree of engagement and an ability to take more risks. Most of my experience here is with Soros so I’ll focus more on that. Properly done, that is with a living donor who has a strong vision but understands that they need strong people around them to carry it out, you can accomplish a lot.

I think endowed foundations, where the board carries out a dead donor’s wishes, often act more conservatively as stewards. The presence of a living donor often inspires a kind of boldness. I’m not saying the only good foundations are those with living donors – there are examples of living donors who are ineffective and examples of perpetual foundations that are very bold and do great things.

Here at Atlantic and at OSI we have two people with different personalities but broadly similar political values, who decided to apply their wealth to some of the greatest challenges of the time, hiring some smart people to help them do it. So it’s a great, great opportunity for me to work at both these philanthropies. The last chapters of the Atlantic story remain to be written, and I hope they look good.

Gara LaMarche is President and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies. He was previously Vice President and Director of US Programs for the Open Society Institute. Email

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