The notion of spending much of one’s fortune while living is a concept briskly taking hold in philanthropic circles around the globe. Giving away money fast—to do good right now—is an idea championed by some of the most high-impact, high-net-worth donors of the modern era. Philanthropic heavy hitters like Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Richard and Joan Branson, Larry Ellison, and Eli and Edythe Broad have all made giving while living a priority. As of 2020, more than 200 high-net-worth individuals and couples had signed the Gates and Buffett Giving Pledge, promising to give more than half of their wealth away during their lifetimes—albeit in many cases to foundations that will operate after the donors’ deaths.
The example of Chuck Feeney and Atlantic Philanthropies provides an excellent roadmap for donors interested in giving away their wealth during their lifetimes. Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies has distributed a total of $8 billion over 35 years. Atlantic Philanthropies concluded nearly all its giving in 2016 and plans to close its doors permanently in 2020, the largest foundation in history to spend itself out of existence.
In light of Feeney’s example, here are some steps you might consider taking:
• Consider establishing a formal agreement to spend down your foundation’s assets: The Atlantic Philanthropies board did this in 2002, promising to spend the foundation’s then $4 billion corpus in 10 to 15 years.
• Be watchful: Continue to be a wise steward of your giving and pay attention. Even living donors can find themselves frustrated by staff and board members who steer grantmaking in unwelcome directions and by grantees who ignore the terms of gifts.
• Be nimble: Feeney sought to dodge the bureaucratic sclerosis that afflicts foundations as they age, seeking instead the nimbleness and “opportunity-driven” engagement he enjoyed in his business. • Be an example: Consider being public in your giving to set an example for other donors.
• Be active and enjoy the process: Feeney embraced the pure joy of “giving while living,” which maximizes both the size of gifts and their pleasures.