New Orleans In trying to resituate organizing on more sustainable ground around the world, I don’t keep up with foundations and so-called philanthropy much anymore, except as an occasional curiosity a lot like people might watch unreality shows like “lives of the rich and famous.” Nonetheless the sudden announced departure of the well regarded Gara LaMarche and the likely repurposing of Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies, his most recent employer, over the last week is a tree falling in the forest that could create a huge clear cut in the growth of the progressive forces at this critical crossroads.
During LaMarche’s term at Atlantic in recent years the foundation was fueling the immigration reform efforts for example to the tune of between $5 and $6 million per year, therefore bearing no small amount of the weight for the success and failure of that movement. In the 2008 election cycle Atlantic’s investments in voter engagement and civic participation were huge through a variety of vehicles allowing 501c4 activity. LaMarche’s farewell letter celebrates AP’s work in the healthcare reform effort as the domestic touchstone of accomplishment from his term, though arguably no one knows better than LaMarche how swallow that accomplishment is today, unless we double down now and over the next several years.
Certainly Atlantic is dedicated to a final payout strategy of all resources over the next five years and was always a brilliant moth flying towards the flame in philanthropy, but its role in the “here and now” of capacity building for these huge campaigns was inarguably dramatic regardless of its short lifespan. The sudden, unexpected departure of LaMarche raises huge fears that the redirection of Atlantic could leave progressive engagement, advocacy, and campaign efforts unprepared and outgunned even as these fights have moved into critical, defensive postures looking for opportunities to reassert.
It is hard to tell whether LaMarche was pushed or jumped, since it looks more like he looked around and found his position deserted. After years of hearing that he had a 10-year commitment to lead Atlantic within his social justice framework until its doors closed, I was surprised to read in his farewell message that he had essentially a “free agent” clause with a 5-year contract renewal and exit option, if that’s the best way to understand this. Reading his message, it was a little like following the sports page and watching another star athlete say I have to leave the team because it’s no longer committed to winning a championship or in this case retire.
There’s little ambiguity in this paragraph:
So why leave now? I have appreciated the Board’s strong support and partnership in the direction of Atlantic, particularly the social justice framework we adopted as a way of guiding our strategic choices. At the same time, Atlantic’s Founding Chairman Chuck Feeney, for whom I have the utmost respect and gratitude, has expressed a vision for the foundation’s remaining few years more closely centred around the kinds of capital investments in higher education and biomedical research for which he is rightly celebrated, but for which my particular experience, passions and capacities are not the best fit. I step down now because I believe Chuck and the Board deserve the opportunity to find someone who shares and can implement the Founding Chairman’s vision while preserving Atlantic’s groundbreaking work in human rights, ageing, public health and children and youth.
I may be wrong, but I don’t see any other way to read that paragraph other than to understand that Feeney is now going long on “bricks and mortar” and traditional, mainstream big-ticket health and university funding and deserting the framework of social change and advocacy that LaMarche had trumpeted. The fact that advocacy is not even mentioned in the paragraph says something in its silence. In looking at the grant list on the Atlantic website the only program area that could not be accessed for 2010 grants was in fact in under advocacy, though I hate to rest too much of my concern on this point, since Atlantic, like most foundations, is about as transparent as walking around at night with sunglasses on with their last annual report having been in 2008 and the rest is either hard to navigate or hidden in plain sight where it was less than easily accessible to techno-peasants like me at least.
I wonder if the contraction of the huge Tides Advocacy Fund which distributed much of the Atlantic largesse in civic engagement and voter registration and immigration reform isn’t directly tied to LaMarche’s exit strategy and the potential seismic shift of Atlantic repurposing? None of this is to say that Atlantic may not still be a significant funder in these other areas, but clearly they will be part of the freight rather than driving the truck. Were they still committed to leading the parade, I have to believe LaMarche would have re-upped until the job was done.
When two giants in the field of philanthropy like the entrepreneurial Drummond Pike of Tides and the master administrator, big player and world shaker like Gara LaMarche leave the sector in the same year, it is hard to fill such gaps easily no matter how deep the bench, and is a vividly painful reminder that donors call these tunes in good times and bad in those outfits.
Any new partners are welcome to join me in the sustainability search, but be ready for a hard slough and a painful journey up this mountain with sharp falls and deep crevices everywhere you look and little hope of breaking a fall.