Philanthropists Peter Kinney and Lisa Sandquist tell Ellie O’Byrne why their sights are set on funding equality in Ireland
If you had managed to amass a fortune, would you spend the rest of your life trying to give it all away?
That’s what Irish-American childless couple Peter Kinney and Lisa Sandquist have done; they’ve launched a philanthropic foundation to give away all their worldly goods to worthy causes before they pass on.
Ireland is very much in their sights as a place where they hope to create lasting change through funding projects focused on promoting social equality. Working with Social Innovation Fund Ireland, they’ve set up a €300,000 equality fund and awarded money to five organisations they believe will promote a more equal Ireland.
Peter, who was born and educated in Dublin and emigrated to the US in 1988, says Irish society is changing dramatically, a phenomenon evident to the couple on their frequent visits to these shores to see family and
reconnect with Irish culture.
“When you grew up in Ireland, it’s really surprising how the attitudes towards people who are different to you have changed, whether that’s marriage equality or the eighth amendment,” Peter says.
“Ireland now has the second-highest foreign-born population in the world [as a percentage of the total population],” he says.
“We think that’s fantastic, but it brings a lot of issues to the fore that Ireland has to face. We see problems that other countries have had, whether it’s the US or France, and we feel it’s super important to try to get ahead of that and support the immigrant community in integrating and being part of Ireland.”
Peter met his partner, Lisa, just three years into his life in the US. The couple are based in Chicago, where Lisa is a yoga instructor and Peter is a financial consultant who manages investment funds, including the Ireland-based Kinsale Capital Management.
Like most philanthropists, they avoid the limelight — they didn’t want their photo used alongside this article — and are understandably not keen to reveal how much they’re worth. “Let’s say we have enough money to be comfortable,” Peter says.
“We don’t have children to pass it on to, so we decided six or seven years ago to set up a foundation to give away whatever we have before we die, which hopefully won’t be for a long time.”
Social Innovation Fund Ireland, with whom the couple worked to identify five awardees for their fund, is an initiative which matches money from donors with an equal investment — via the Dormant Accounts Fund — from the Department of Rural and Community Development provides.
Peter and Lisa were involved in a selection process that identified five projects they wanted to fund. It’s a diverse array of organisations: Amal Women’s Association is a service for Muslim women in Ireland, LGBT Ireland’s LGBT Champions Programme is aimed at older people who want to “come out as LGBT friendly”, and Power To Recover is an online e-health initiative developed by Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC). They also fund Stay Safe Work Wise (SSWW), a dedicated web resource to improve safety for sex workers, and the Phoenix Programme, which provides systemic therapeutic intervention to sex offenders, their families and their victims.
In the lead-up to last year’s abortion referendum, fears were raised in the conservative “no” campaign about foreign donors funding political change when it emerged that the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) had ordered Amnesty International to return a donation of €137,000 from the Open Society Foundations (OSF) — a philanthropic body founded by businessman George Soros — made in 2015 and used to campaign for a referendum.
SIPO later settled the case following legal action by Amnesty, but the matter led people in some circles to claim that philanthropists were funding programmes in Ireland that amount to social engineering. Peter and Lisa say this is not the case.
“We’re really just trying to kickstart projects that are hard to fund, to try to make Ireland a little more equal,” Peter says.
“One of the reasons we were so interested in partnering with the Social Innovation Fund is their expertise,” Lisa adds. “We felt like we were in really good hands in terms of knowledge and looking at need and matching with innovative projects.”
“We see equality really as just helping people on the margins, who have difficulty living the same life as people who have rights.”
Lisa, who has Irish citizenship, says the couple got great pleasure from a recent visit to Dublin for a special dinner alongside their awardees, an experience she describes as “heartwarming”.
Leaving a legacy of positivity behind in the world is a cornerstone of her own personal philosophy, she says.
“Studying yoga and meditation can lead you to think about your mortality and what you want to leave the world, and maybe that’s why it’s so important to me that we’re doing this. It’s really satisfying. There’s a selfish aspect to giving.”