Summary: Armed with a large endowment from left-wing duty-free shopping tycoon Charles “Chuck” Feeney, the soon-to-dissolve Bermuda-based Atlantic Philanthropies invented a new way of using tax-privileged dollars to promote radical social change in America. The foundation mastered the subversive technique of funding 501(c)(4) action groups with tax-exempt money that, were it based in the U.S., couldn’t be used to underwrite political activity of any kind. Atlantic takes credit for the enactment of Obamacare and even for driving immigration-enforcement hawk Lou Dobbs off CNN.
Shutting Itself Down
In 2002, 20 years after establishing the Atlantic Philanthropies, its founder Chuck Feeney decided to limit the philanthropy’s life, with the goal of shutting down grantmaking not later than 2020 (see “A Donor Can Stand Up: Battling over donor intent at the Atlantic Philanthropies,” by Neil Maghami, Foundation Watch, April 2015).
The organization explains its philanthropic thinking on the “giving while living” page of its website: “By devoting the majority of your wealth to philanthropy during your lifetime, you can experience the immense satisfaction of not only making a difference, but seeing it happen now.
“Giving While Living is an entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy by which you actively devote your money, skills and time to make a difference sooner rather than later. You can learn and make adjustments to get the biggest bang—and impact—for your buck.”
What goes unmentioned is that giving away your personal wealth while you are still alive precludes the possibility of your wishes (or “donor intent”) being subverted by someone with different ideas managing your money after you’re gone. This is a common fate suffered by the estates of many politically conservative philanthropists: The deceased benefactor’s financial legacy gets diverted to causes they would have despised; their donor intent is betrayed over time as original principles are forgotten or ignored. (CRC’s senior fellow Martin Morse Wooster’s new book How Great Philanthropists Failed and You Can Succeed at Protecting Your Legacy explores this issue at length.)
Atlantic Philanthropies trustees adhered to their pre-ordained schedule, draining their treasury by choosing the final grant recipients in December 2016 (final grant monies continue to be distributed). Driving home Atlantic’s planned insolvency, its website warns, “Beware of email scam claiming to be from Atlantic, Charles Feeney or Christopher G. Oechsli.” Over 35 years, Atlantic awarded $8 billion in grants in 23 countries on five continents.
Still, the New York based Atlantic Advocacy Fund (AAF) arm of Atlantic Philanthropies has been very active in its last years. In 2014 alone, it funded many 501(c)(4) political advocacy groups, according to its IRS Form 990.
- It gave the Latino Victory Project $1 million “to support comprehensive immigration reform through Latino civic engagement.” Latino Victory Project is a PAC that conducts voter mobilization drives, describing itself as devoted to “growing Latino political power by increasing Latino representation at every level of government—from the school board to the Senate to the White House.” The PAC “identifies, recruits, and develops candidates for public office while building a permanent base of Latino donors to support them.”
- $115,000 in grants flowed from the AAF to the far-Left Washington Office on Latin America for various causes, including improving U.S. relations with Communist Cuba and shutting down the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. $1,250,000 in grants went to push immigration amnesty legislation to the Center for Community Change, a radical community organizing and lobbying organization. Its executive director is Deepak Bhargava, who used to be ACORN’s legislative director. America’s Voice received $1.3 million to press for immigration amnesty.
- The Atlantic Advocacy Fund also created the Washington, D.C.-based Civic Participation Action Fund (CPAF) in 2015. CPAF is a 501(c)(4) group armed with a $50 million grant for a “five year plan.” The objective here was to advance Atlantic’s left-wing policy agenda by building on its 501(c)(4)-oriented social change strategy by creating this legacy (c)(4) that will survive Atlantic Philanthropies and pursue its mission of encouraging other foundations to put money into (c)(4) outlets. Stephen McConnell, a Ph.D.-holding sociologist and former Country Director, U.S. Programs at Atlantic Philanthropies, became CPAF’s president.
True to form, CPAF reportedly donated to at least three Democrat-aligned super PACs in 2016, including $1.5 million for a get-out-the-vote program aimed at immigrant voters supporting Hillary Clinton.
According to the fund’s website, its mission is “to promote racial equity, economic opportunity and democratic participation among low-income people of color through advocacy and civic engagement.” The group adds, “We want to make sure the electorate looks like America, and that our democracy is representative of all the people. Our goal is to see more people voting—particularly low-income people of color.”
Since an electorate is by definition the body of persons entitled to vote in an election, it isn’t clear what exactly CPAF means when it claims to want “to make sure the electorate looks like America.” Since 11 million or more illegal aliens live among us, perhaps making those illegals voters is part of CPAF’s plan.
Of course, CPAF demands more taxpayer-funded handouts for, well, everyone, as well as higher wages for “working families.” The group also wants to change the criminal justice system so poor people and minorities get special treatment before the law. The fund’s 2015 IRS filing indicates it gave grants that year to Latino Victory Project ($325,000), America’s Voice ($300,000), National Immigration Forum ($85,000), and National People’s Action ($40,500). It also gave $30,000 in membership dues to the Democracy Alliance and a $25,000 grant to the latter’s project, the Committee on States.
- The Atlantic Philanthropies created Mangrove Foundation, another 501(c)(4) nonprofit. According to an IRS filing, the nonprofit organizations that it gave grants to in 2015 were all 501(c)(3) groups: The foundation gave $2 million to Green for All, a group founded by ousted Obama green jobs czar and admitted communist Van Jones.
Mangrove also gave to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ($2,500,000), National Council of La Raza ($75,000), George Soros’s Open Society Foundations ($5 million) and the related Open Society Institute ($250,000), and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law ($175,000).
The Atlantic Philanthropies leaves behind a partisan legacy of forced, inorganic, top-down social change driven by left-wing elitists. Its aggressive, strained interpretation of tax law allowed it to use 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations as a bludgeon in enacting Obamacare and become a major player in immigration reform. Given the overwhelming advantage left-wing foundations have long enjoyed over right-leaning institutional donors, Atlantic’s startling legal innovation isn’t likely to produce a world friendly to conservative principles.