News and analysis
November 16, 2015

Atlantic Philanthropies Gives $177 Million to Study Dementia

Brad Vest, The New York Times, Redux

Philanthropist Charles Feeney announced that he would give away his entire fortune while he was still alive and set 2016 as the foundation’s final year as an active grant maker.

The Atlantic Philanthropies, which will conclude its grant-making commitments next year, announced on Monday the capstone of its work on aging populations: a $177 million grant to create a new institute to study dementia.

The new organization, the Global Brain Health Institute, will be run by the University of California at San Francisco and Trinity College, in Dublin, Ireland, both longtime Atlantic grantees.

In 2002, Atlantic’s founder Charles Feeney, 84, announced that he would give away his entire fortune while he was still alive and set 2016 as the foundation’s final year as an active grant maker. To date, the philanthropy’s grants have totaled more than $7.5 billion. It plans to shut down permanently in 2020, giving it time to wrap up operations, share its experience with others, and serve as a point of contact for its stable of grantees.

Atlantic initiated talks with the universities two years ago. Through Atlantic, Mr. Feeney — who co-founded a company that operates duty-free stores — is the largest donor to the University of California at San Francisco, having given a total of about $394 million to the institution before today’s grant.

"We found in Trinity and UCSF some very compatible players who had worked together before," said Christopher Oechsli, Atlantic’s president. "There were some organic links already, and we built on those."

Much of Mr. Feeney’s remaining fortune is tied up in illiquid assets, so it is difficult to calculate exactly how much the foundation has left to give. Mr. Oechsli provided a rough count of $500 million. To stick to its spend-down timetable, 2016 will probably be the most active year in the grant maker’s history, he said.

Over the next 13 months, Atlantic will turn to its other program areas: children and youths; reconciliation and human rights; and health care for vulnerable populations.

"This will pretty much conclude our efforts in aging health-sciences grant making," Mr. Oechsli said.

‘Huge Global Effort’

In 2013, when he was invited to a meeting with Mr. Oechsli and other Atlantic officers, Bruce Miller, director of the Memory and Aging Center at the California university, thought he might be in for a small grant to support research. Now he’s co-director of the institute, with Ian Robertson, a neuropsychologist at Trinity.

"It’s gone from something small and a little parochial, thinking about my individual program, to a huge global effort," Dr. Miller said.

The Global Brain Health Institute plans to train more than 600 leaders over the next 15 years. Half of the fellows who participate in the program will come from the United States and Ireland and half will come from other countries throughout the world. The institute will support fellows who return to their countries after one or two years of study to establish medical centers, push for policy changes, and delve into new research.

Atlantic took an international approach because only a handful of countries have devoted significant resources to combat dementia. By 2050, the number of people with the disease is expected to triple.

Although medical breakthroughs are an important part of defeating dementia, Dr. Miller said patients and health organizations in poor countries will not be able to afford cutting-edge medicines. To address those disparities the institute will take a broad approach to fighting the disease by inviting experts in economics, policy, the arts and communications to apply to the program.

Power of Music

The institute has developed several approaches it will support in early stages, such as a web portal to help families of dementia patients navigate various aspects of care, the use of music as a tool to strengthen cognitive skills, and the development of computer applications to prevent strokes, a leading risk factor for dementia.

The interdisciplinary approach is necessary to change attitudes about aging so people will begin to see older people as a vital part of society rather than a burden, Dr. Miller said.

"If we don’t change the way society thinks about our elders, we’ll never be able to cure this disease," he said.

As Atlantic ponders what to do with its remaining assets, it will use the new institute as a model, said Mr. Oechsli. It will use the rest of its grants to educate set of experts from various disciplines to push for changes in policy and make medical and scientific advances in its other areas of interest.

"Ultimately, it’s people with awareness, knowledge, influence and the ability to achieve change that will make the difference," Mr. Oechsli said. "We’re seeking to populate the field with smart thinkers who come at it from different perspectives,"

Send an email to Alex Daniels.