Literally life-changing: a PILS tribute to Chuck Feeney
The term ‘life-changing’ is one of those descriptors that can get worn out from overuse. But The PILS Project can confidently say, without a hint of hyperbole, that Chuck Feeney’s contribution to our mission genuinely was life-changing.
Without the visionary support of The Atlantic Philanthropies, our project would not exist. It really is as simple as that.
The fund first began exploring the idea of setting up a dedicated public interest litigation organisation in Northern Ireland back in 2005. PILS began life as a pilot project in 2009 after Atlantic provided a start-up grant to bring the idea to life. This was followed by another legacy grant in 2014, as Atlantic wound down its operations worldwide, to bolster our strategic litigation work. That is the money that fuels our Litigation Fund to this day.
Even though Atlantic is no longer an active grant maker (having successfully fulfilled Chuck’s dream of ‘giving while living’), there’s still an archive of the support it pledged available online. Scrolling down through the list of its grantees whose work focused on Northern Ireland, you get a sense of how influential its support was to civil society here.
Because it wasn’t just PILS who benefited from Chuck’s vision. So many of the organisations that make up our vibrant membership network today are listed in that database: IEF, STEP, Age NI, Disability Action, Children’s Law Centre, Barnardo’s, Law Centre NI, PPR, CAJ, RCN, The Detail, Advice NI, Human Rights Consortium, and more.
It’s often said that his familial roots in Fermanagh drove Chuck Feeney’s desire to assist the development of the human rights sector in Northern Ireland. After 588 grants, totalling $580million, over 23 years, we think it’s fair to say that the landscape would look very different without that financial backing.
One of the final investments Atlantic Philanthropies made in Northern Ireland was the purchase of a three-storey office building on the edge of Belfast city centre. This might not sound like the most riveting purchase in the world – but it would prove similarly life-changing for four local human rights organisations and the communities they support.
The building became known as ‘Community House’. It houses four Atlantic-funded human rights organisations with diverse but complementary approaches to creating change: Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), The Human Rights Consortium and ourselves in The PILS Project. This office block was quite literally a concrete contribution to our future, along with the long-term investment of the NI Human Rights Fund, set up in 2015.
All four of those organisations still exist today, combining our unique skills to tackle the major human rights issues of the day. All because Atlantic left us with a solid foundation – metaphorically and physically.
Chuck Feeney’s death was announced on Sunday 09 October 2023, three years after he signed the documents to officially shut down Atlantic.
Over the past few days, the PILS team have been reflecting on his foresight, Atlantic’s bravery to support a fledging NGO like us, and the best way to honour this vision. Once again, we have found our answer in Chuck’s own approach to philanthropy. A glowing Forbes profile piece in 2012 summed up his motivation:
“He hunts for causes where he can have dramatic impact and goes all-in”.
That’s it. The best way to repay his faith in PILS is to continue to live out this mantra: find the seminal public interest challenges of our time and support them, by going ‘all in’.