The Billionaire Who Wasn’t

You probably have never heard of Chuck Feeney. Until recently, neither had I.

Feeney, whose story is memorably told in Conor O’Clery’s The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, rose from working-class roots in an Irish-American neighborhood in Depression-era Elizabeth, N.J., to become one of the richest people in the world. Feeney made his money as one of the founders of Duty Free Shoppers, an international retailing colossus that sells luxury goods (liquor, watches, jewelry) at discounted rates to international tourists.

Chuck Feeney

Feeney was very good at making money, and he excelled at the competition and strategic derring-do of the business world. In mid-life, however, Feeney came to realize that money itself didn’t give him any particular thrill. What he liked was using his wealth to help people. And so in 1984 he secretly transferred nearly all of his assets to a charitable entity now known as Atlantic Philanthropies. By the time Atlantic Philanthropies distributes the last of its assets in 2016, it will have given away as much as $9 billion to charity.

The impact has been extraordinary. Feeney has remade the universities of Ireland. He has built hospitals and universities in Vietnam and South Africa. He is the largest philanthropist in the history of Australia. He has provided humanitarian support for the people of Cuba (not easy, given the American trade embargo). And he is by far the largest donor in the history of his alma mater, Cornell University.

Some observations about Feeney, after reading O’Clery’s book:

  • Though Feeney made his money selling luxury goods, he himself is frugal and modest. He flies coach. He tends to wear open-collared shirts to receptions instead of tailored suits or tuxedos. And the man who made his fortune selling Rolexes takes pride in wearing a $15 plastic watch.
  • Feeney was utterly committed to having his charitable gifts be anonymous, and he was successful in this for many years until word of his activities was uncovered by journalists and court proceedings. In fact, grantees of Atlantic Philanthropies often had not known the identity of the organization that was making the grants to them, let alone the man behind it – and if they did know, the grant terms required them not to mention the donor in any way.
  • Even Feeney’s business partners for many years did not realize that he had transferred all his business assets to a charitable entity.  They, like Forbes Magazine in its annual listings of the richest people in the world, were unaware that Feeney was no longer a billionaire, and that he had made Atlantic Philanthropies the owner of his business interests.
  • Feeney refused to have his name on any building or project he funded, though the leaders of Vietnam’s Da Nang Hospital found a mischievous way of honoring their Irish-American benefactor: they painted the new six-story building he had funded a bright green.
  • Feeney remains deeply involved in the Atlantic Philanthropies grantmaking process. Now in his 80s, he still travels around the world, talking to prospective grantees, checking on the progress of current grantees, and suggesting new approaches to solving problems.
  • Something dear to my heart: Feeney insisted that his foundation spend down both principal and interest. He didn’t like the idea of creating a perpetual foundation, and he considered the large, permanent foundations he saw to be stale. He wanted the money to be used now. He said, “The dollar you give today can be doing good tomorrow; giving five percent of it doesn’t do so much good.”

Not everyone can be Chuck Feeney, of course. But Feeney provides a marvelous counterexample to the conspicuous consumption of some of the super-wealthy and the repellent egocentricity of certain self-promoting business leaders. (Donald Trump, anyone?)

So then the question comes up: how does the Chuck Feeney story apply to those of us who aren’t billionaires? Here are some Feeney-isms that might resonate with the average person:

1)     The act of giving money away to a worthy cause can give you tremendous joy and a sense of purpose.

2)     You should get to know the organizations you’re supporting and take the time to find out how they can best use your gift to create real impact.

3)     Don’t wait until you’re dead to become a donor. Your money won’t be able to help people until you give it away, so give it away while you’re alive. Plus, it’s fun and rewarding to see your donation in action.

4)     Don’t create a permanent foundation or fund. Get the money in the hands of people and organizations who need it.

The best word to describe Chuck Feeney, and one that I usually avoid: inspirational. His story in an antidote to cynicism.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Mr. Feeney is truly amazing. Well said Mr. Cantor.

  • Al – this is a great blog and inspiring in an of itself! Thanks Al.

  • Great Al!! Helps restore faith in humankind!

  • Great story! I think it also is a cautionary tale for anyone who works with donors. What would you do for a donor who is like Chuck Feeney? As a Development Professional, you could find yourself shut out of knowing who he is or why he chose your chairty to support. This requires some deeper thought for recognition, appreciation and relationship building. Thanks Al.

    • Thanks, Loretta!

      Good question about recognition for a resolutely anonymous donor. Of course, none of us have donors like Chuck Feeney — he’s a one and only because of his scale — but how best to deal with an anonymous donor is a great thing to think about.

      My reading of Feeney is that he certainly didn’t mind hearing, one-on-one, how appreciated his gifts were. He grew very close to the leaders of the organizations he supported (at least those to whom he revealed his identity). What he rejected was public praise, his name on buildings, that sort of thing.

      Just because a donor requests anonymity doesn’t mean you can’t thank them in person and in writing. In fact, it’s really important to do just that. You simply have to be careful not to breathe a word about their identity to others.


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