May 26th, 2011
“How do I do the most good with my philanthropic dollars?” This challenging question has guided my development as a bold giver for the past two decades.
I was 21 when my parents created a family foundation so their five children could learn about philanthropy. (They called it the French American Charitable Trust, or FACT, because my mother was French and we did some funding in France.) Over the next few years they endowed it with $40 million. This may sound like an enormous sum, but you have to understand the context: my father, Chuck Feeney, was the co-founder of Duty Free Shoppers. A strong believer of “giving while living,” he had already committed his entire business interests to Atlantic Philanthropies, set up the foundation to be run by professionals (not family), and declared that the foundation would pay out in his lifetime. Atlantic Philanthropies has now given about $5.4 billion, so I understood from the start that our family foundation was a comparatively small player in the world of social impact. This was a hard but inspiring act to follow!
As with many family foundations, my four siblings, mom and I began by giving money piecemeal to our favorite causes. I had worked at Greenpeace, and cared about the environment and social injustice. Then, when I was 24, in graduate school studying philosophy and social policy, I volunteered to help the foundation hire staff and to focus its mission. I spent months investigating: talking to experts and friends, reading, learning from the experiences of others, working with a consultant, going into the field. The options were mind-boggling! Yet I was soon attracted to a powerful yet dramatically under-funded strategy for addressing social problems: community organizing. Our foundation could enable people directly affected by the issues we cared about -- environmental toxins, low wages, lack of opportunity -- to speak up for themselves in an organized way and create change.
I took my mother, who gave to fairly traditional charities, on a site visit to “Cancer Alley,” a highly polluted area outside of Baton Rouge. There we met community leaders – people up against enormous odds, living in poverty, dealing with serious health problems themselves – who were engaging their neighbors in constructive solutions. We were both blown away by the energy and determination of these local leaders.
The whole family got behind the idea of funding community-led organizations. To complement this focus, we let each family member have an annual “discretionary fund” – at first just $25,000 each, eventually growing to $200,000 each – so we could continue to fund other issues without needing agreement from each other. The discretionary funds helped us more freely focus on this new core mission.
It was thrilling to be given this green light and to play a leadership role in my family at such a young age. Over time, FACT’s Board and staff adopted four guiding principles:
- Focus: We focused exclusively on supporting community organizing to address poverty and inequality. We accepted no unsolicited proposals so staff time could be devoted to building relationships rather than to wading through mountains of paper.
- Offer long-term support: Nearly half the 60 organizations we funded received general operating support for ten years or longer.
- Build grantee’s capacity: Because our groups needed help with organizational issues such as management, administration, finance, and Board development, we created an innovative capacity-building program that gave grantees this non-monetary help. We also acted as their advocates, connecting them to other funders and educating the philanthropists about the value of community organizing
- Maximize giving: After several years of discussion among the Board, we committed to spend out the entire foundation within 18 years so we could put as much money as possible into our groups. I felt great about this breakthrough. (I’ve always been aghast that most foundations give only 2-3% of assets each year, with another 2-3% going to internal expenses. Years earlier I joined a national campaign to get foundations to increase their spendout by even 1%, and was shocked by opposition we faced.)
For FACT, following these four principles produced profound rewards. Here’s one example: In 1996, we gave $30,000 to the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). The group was three years old with a budget of $250,000, and we were one of their first funders. By 1999, our annual grant to LAANE was up to $100,000, and today the group has a budget of $4 million and a staff of 44. Through an unusual combination of community organizing, research, economic analysis and policy advocacy they have been able to successfully tackle many job issues affecting poor communities. We’ve cheered as they won city-wide victories that benefitted hundreds of thousands of people, including legally-binding living wage ordinances and community benefits agreements with developers.
How satisfying to know that FACT played a role in dozens of these stories like this! The foundation will soon close its doors, having given over $54 million. I feel incredibly fortunate that my family was open to my leadership and gave me the chance to dive into such important work so young. I’m ready now to move on to the next phase of my life – starting with moving to Costa Rica with my husband and three children.
But before I go, I’m taking the risk to step out and share FACT’s story. I’d like to see far more foundations supporting community organizing… giving long-term support… paying out more than 5%. I hope others will read our grantmaking report and be inspired to adopt the four principles that enabled our relatively small foundation to have a big impact in a short time.
Download FACT’s online reports:
Giving more. Making change. (Lessons from their 18 years of grant making.)
Beyond 5% (Case studies showing many options for foundation payout.)