FACT was established in 1990 by Chuck Feeney, the co-founder of Duty Free Shoppers, and Danielle Feeney, his then wife, with a $40 million endowment to enable their five children to learn about philanthropy. Feeney had already made a mark for himself as a philanthropist when, in 1984 at the age of 53, he made an irrevocable transfer of his business interests into a foundation. Feeney’s intent was to give his wealth away during his lifetime, and that foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, will spend out its multi-billion dollar endowment by 2016. Atlantic and FACT were deliberately established as different types of entities: Atlantic is professionally administered, with minimal family involvement, although Feeney sits on its board; FACT is a small family foundation, with its direction determined by family members. Still, Feeney’s example of “giving while living” was one that his children would take to heart.
The five siblings and their mother began by giving money piecemeal to favorite causes. Then, in 1993, the second youngest, Diane, decided, with the support of her family, to take on the foundation as a project. She hired a staff person and determined a direction for the foundation’s work. “At that time, my siblings didn’t have the space in their lives to think about how to give away a lot of money,” Diane Feeney recalled. “So, I was fortunate enough to be able to take on this project. My family was very supportive.” With the help of FACT’s first managing director,
Christina Roessler, and Diane as president, FACT became immersed in the field of community organizing. Diane had worked at Greenpeace, and was interested in environmental and social justice issues. “I had very progressive politics, and wanted to focus on systems-wide efforts to combat poverty instead of direct service programs. I believed in holding government and others accountable if nothing changed,” Diane said.
She was soon persuaded that one way to bring change was to help people who were directly affected by environmental toxins, low wages, and lack of opportunity develop the skills to speak up for themselves in an organized way. Once energized and empowered, those people could come together to curb the noxious power plants spewing fumes into their houses, fight for living wages, and persuade legislators to enact policies that would enable them to take sick days without fear of losing their jobs. As active community leaders and voters, they could also hold elected officials accountable. They could apply their skills and their community network to any issue, small or large, and join with other groups to work on a regional, state, and even national level. FACT’s staff developed a theory of how to bring about change that involved “funding strong and effective community-led organizations with a global perspective that prioritize leadership development, organizing and advocacy at the state, regional and national levels with the objective of developing public policies that address their needs.”
“At its heart, this is about the personal transformation of people taking control of their lives,” Diane said. “I came to believe very strongly that funding community-led activism and leadership development was the most strategic thing we could do. We weren’t going to end injustice, disenfranchisement and poverty with $40 million, but if we could help educate and develop citizens and support the goals of democracy by and for the people, then that would make a difference. As the old saying goes, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ It was not so much about what laws got passed, or what victories were won, although the end goal is about policy change from the bottom up.”
Diane presented the concept to her family members, who were supportive of her ideas about funding community-led organizations. She took her mother, who was normally more interested in traditional philanthropy such as support for charities, archaeology and the alleviation of global suffering, on a site visit to “Cancer Alley,” an area outside of Baton Rouge that has a very high concentration of industrial facilities. They met community leaders living in poverty with serious health problems in a highly polluted area who were getting involved in solutions. “She was blown away by their energy and determination,” Diane recalled. “She was inspired, just as I was.”
Diane wanted to follow the best possible practices in structuring the foundation’s giving, so she read widely, and visited a number of philanthropists and experienced family foundation staff members to get ideas. Key principles that emerged from those discussions included carefully choosing a limited number of groups, supporting those groups for the long term with general operating funds, and being respectful of their time, their mission, and their expertise. FACT also decided not to accept unsolicited proposals, thereby freeing staff time for more targeted work with the grantees.
Initially, FACT funded organizations all over the United States. But soon after Diane moved the foundation from Washington DC to California in 1997, she realized that it would be more strategic to concentrate on three geographical areas. California, which had a number of interesting groups with a long-term vision related to turning around entire cities, became a priority. A cluster of groups in New Mexico was promising. FACT also felt that the South was particularly underfunded, and groups in Kentucky (Kentuckians for the Commonwealth) and Mississippi (Southern Echo) were among the foundation’s first, and most solid, grantees. California, the Southwest, and the South thus became the focus of FACT’s grant making.
In 1997, a small grant making program was also initiated in France since Diane’s mother, Danielle, is French. With the help of a part-time staff person, FACT developed a program to help a dozen locally-based organizations in two regions of France that believed in the power of individuals acting together to make change for themselves and their communities.
With the move to California, FACT had found its niche. It also found an important new role: being an advocate for its grantees and the issues they worked on. With a small number of groups and no unsolicited proposals to read, Diane and FACT’s staff had time to get to know the grantees well, make site visits, listen to them and understand what they needed. With this information, FACT staff came to be known as a resource for other funders interested in the work of these groups. They sought to connect grantees to other funding sources by highlighting their work and opening doors with foundation program officers. They also became active in the philanthropic sector, helping to show other funders the impact of community led social justice work, which receives only a tiny percentage of philanthropic dollars as compared to the funds that go to bigger policy-driven groups. “Community organizing has an impact on people, and, in the long term on policies, because if grassroots people are behind the laws that are passed, they can make sure they are implemented and never get overturned,”