Feeney has redefined philanthropy

Chuck Feeney’s lack of pretension comes from his working-class background in New Jersey.

By Geoffrey Cobb

Perhaps no other American better personifies generosity than eighty-nine-year-old Chuck Feeney. Over the last four decades, Feeney has donated more than $8 billion to charities, universities and foundations worldwide through his foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies. In fact, no American in history has given a way a higher proportion of his wealth than Feeney. So why are there no monuments to this paragon of philanthropy — no Feeney Hospitals or Feeney buildings on college campuses? Because Feeney never wanted to be recognized for his largess. For years, Feeney gave away his billions anonymously. While many wealthy philanthropists hire publicists to trumpet their donations, Feeney strove to keep his gifts secret. He has clandestinely aided charitable causes in so many different parts of the world that he has won a nickname: the  James Bond of Philanthropy.

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Perhaps as amazing as Feeney’s generosity is his frugality. Feeney has no car or luxuries of any kind. Though a billionaire, Feeney always flew coach. Instead of wearing a Rolex, he sports a $15 watch. He and his wife share a spartan apartment in San Francisco. When visiting New York, Feeney shunned the city’s famous restaurants. His great indulgence for years was a burger at Tommy Makem’s Pavilion.

Perhaps Feeney’s lack of pretension comes from his working-class background. Born on April 23, 1931 in Elizabeth, N.J., Charles Francis Feeney came of age in a humble Irish-American family struggling through the Great Depression. His mother was a nurse, and his father was an insurance salesman. Feeney got his first job at age 10, selling Christmas cards door-to-door for extra money. During the Korean War Feeney enlisted in the Air Force and then after his military service he used the G.I. Bill to study hotel management at Cornell University.

In 1960, Feeney co-founded the firm Duty Free Shoppers with Robert Miller. The team amassed a fortune selling luxury goods to tourists, and later started a massively successful private equity firm called General Atlantic. The company now operates in 11 major airports and 20 Galleria stores serving some 160 million customers alone in 2017.

In 1984, he secretly transferred all of his assets, including his ownership of the duty-free business, to Atlantic Philanthropies. Feeney made his foundation rich with shrewd early investments in companies like Facebook, Priceline, E-Trade, Alibaba and Legent, but revealed nothing about his foundation to the outside world until 1997 when a business dispute forced him reluctantly to reveal its existence.

Feeney’s largess has helped Ireland greatly. A chance invitation to join a consortium of Irish Americans to buy Ashford Castle brought Feeney to Ireland in 1985 and he decided to help. Feeney donated to the University of Limerick and donations to other Irish universities followed. For a 30-year period, Feeney’s money enriched many Irish universities, funding important research. He also supported the peace process and numerous community initiatives, north and south.

Influenced by Andrew Carnegie’s essay “The Gospel of Wealth,” with its famous declaration that “the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor,” Feeney created a revolution in philanthropy by deciding to give away his fortune during his lifetime, which he dubbed, “Giving while living.” Feeney inspired Warren Buffet and Bill Gates to launch the Giving Pledge in 2010 — a campaign to convince the world’s wealthiest people to give away at least half their fortunes before their deaths. In July 2017, Bill Gates tweeted, “Atlantic founder Chuck Feeney is one of my heroes. I’ve learned a lot from his ‘giving while living’ philosophy.”

On Sept. 14, Feeney dissolved his foundation and signed documents closing up Atlantic Philanthropies. The ceremony, which happened over Zoom, included messages from Bill Gates and former California Governor Jerry Brown. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sent an official letter from the U.S. Congress thanking Feeney for his work. In an era of ostentation, conspicuous consumption and self-aggrandizement, Feeney’s quiet largess is a breath of fresh air and an inspiration to us all.

Geoffrey Cobb is the author of "The King of Greenpoint," a biography of 20th century Brooklyn politician Peter J. McGuinness.