“Hatching chickens,” one might say, is what the Atlas Economic Research Foundation is all about. The influential think tank in Arlington, Virginia, was the entrepreneurial brainchild of Britain’s Sir Antony Fisher, who made a fortune developing a low-cost method for processing chickens. As a dedicated believer in free-market ideas, he next turned his attention to finding a similar method for promoting sound economic policies around the world.
He founded Atlas in 1981 to identify and assist “intellectual entrepreneurs” who shared his vision. That is, he sought to help people around the world who showed the desire and flair for promoting the essential principles of a free society. Atlas has been perpetuating Sir Antony’s legacy ever since by hatching fledgling free-market think tanks in the United States and abroad, including China, India, South Africa, Turkey, and Western Europe.
Atlas is unusually structured in that it’s not quite a foundation (it has no endowment) or an ordinary nonprofit association (it facilitates funding for other organizations). It rather resembles a British merchant bank that raises war-chests of capital for specific clients. Applying the merchant bank principle to Atlas was Sir Antony’s innovation.
Atlas’s yearly operating budget is about $3 million. “Donors give to Atlas in the same way that they invest in a mutual fund,”says Brad Lips, Atlas’s COO. “They know that Atlas studies the market of start-up think-tanks around the world, and that we use their support where we see the most bang for the buck.”For example, the John Templeton Foundation gave Atlas a $2 million grant to administer the Templeton Freedom Awards over four years, trusting Atlas to give prizes and grants to worthy organizations operating in difficult parts of the world.
In 2003, Atlas facilitated over $1.6 million in grants to organizations and fellowships to individuals—most of them in amounts of $10,000 or less. In 2004, Atlas grants exceeded $1.9 million.
Sir Antony Fisher “found a new niche,” says Alejandro Chafuen, Atlas’s president. “Atlas doesn’t have an endowment as most foundations do. We aid think tank efforts by helping them establish charity tax status, raise funds, and by providing on-going consultation to help them boost productivity and improve governance. Our client organizations are in nearly 40 states and range world-wide. We choose our client organizations for their potential to encourage entrepreneurship and liberty.”
Atlas is far from being a franchise operation. “The organizations we help to support are very independent-minded,” says Chafuen, a native of Argentina with a Ph.D. in economics. “We can’t—we don’t—tell them what to do or think,” he says of client organizations. Recognizing that achieving local credibility is essential for a successful institute, Atlas sees its role as nurturing the initiative of its partners, not trying to control them. Chafuen explains this approach with a biblical metaphor—the vineyard.
“We bring laborers to the vineyard to champion a free marketplace world-wide,” Chafuen explains. “Vineyards are managed on similar principles. Different varieties of grapes thrive in different soils and climates. Each environment creates a different kind of grape. All grape varieties are good, but they are emphatically local.” The Atlas network of U.S. and overseas think tanks encompasses more than 200 organizations.
In its earlier stage, Atlas advised organizations on how to establish themselves as nonprofits. It has moved toward serving not only as an “incubator,” but also as a provider of a broad array of research and resources.
In addition to helping organizations with fundraising and advice, Atlas organizes workshops that connect the worldwide network of free-market think-tanks. In addition to sharing management strategies and policy ideas, participants find energy and inspiration from their peers. Atilla Yayla of Turkey commented, “To be honest, I never benefit from any other international meeting as much as I do from each Atlas meeting . . . . Participants have a common ground, they share basic values and aims.”
When asked what best characterizes Atlas’s success, however, Chafuen points to the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which Atlas helped found and which Chafuen considers one of Atlas’s greatest successes.
“Although an economist can empirically describe what makes a society wealthy,” says Chafuen, “there is another, ineffable factor, and that has to do with values. This is where religion is vibrant in helping to produce social wealth,” Chafuen notes. “We are pleased to have helped bring into being an organization like Acton that examines such values.”
Asked about Atlas’s membership in The Philanthropy Roundtable, Chafuen explains that The Roundtable helps Atlas reach the best experts in the philanthropy field and also helps connect Atlas with potential philanthropic partners all over the world.
Russ Barnes is a writer in Bethesda, Maryland.