Interview with Christopher Oechsli

The president of Atlantic Philanthropies reflects on Chuck Feeney's legendary generosity, and how to recover donor intent

One of the most successful billionaire entrepreneurs and generous philanthropists in history, Chuck Feeney famously wears a $15 watch, doesn’t own a house or car, flies coach, and often uses plastic grocery bags to carry around his belongings. Born into a working-class Irish-American family in New Jersey in 1931, he was one of only two students in his high-school class to go on to college. After serving in the Air Force, he attended Cornell Hotel School on the G.I. Bill, and soon parlayed his education and overseas experience into a novel business creation: the “duty-free shop” where luxury goods are sold to travelers tax free while they are between international boundaries. His Duty Free Shoppers company brought him enormous fortune. In 1984 he convened a secret meeting and signed it all away.

The Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation that his gift created, was one of the largest in the world and the most unknown. It doled out strictly anonymous grants to support university buildings, research, and scholarships around the world—with a special emphasis on Cornell, which Feeney credits with opening the world of opportunity to him, and on Ireland, where Feeney built up universities in Galway, Limerick, Ulster, and elsewhere.

Atlantic also erected medical facilities around the globe (including $270 million to the UC–San Francisco­ Medical Center). It encouraged peacemaking in Ireland and other conflict-ridden areas. Though many of Feeney’s major investments have been in buildings and infrastructure, to this day his name doesn’t appear on any of them. In addition to his love of anonymity, his other penchant is for distributing his money quickly to achieve maximum influence; Atlantic Philanthropies will give out the last of its money in 2016, after spending more than nearly $7.5 billion on a range of charitable causes.

Atlantic Philanthropies periodically involved itself in liberal political causes, sometimes dramatically. Its $26.5 million investment in the passage of the Affordable Care Act would have been off-limits for most foundations, but since Atlantic was incorporated in the Bermuda, it was not bound by U.S. strictures against lobbying by foundations. In 2011, it changed course on this front—returning to Feeney's signature large-stakes, infrastructure-building philanthropy via a massive gift to Cornell that was wholly practical and non-ideological. New York City was about to decide a competition among leading universities to establish a powerhouse new tech university and business incubator in the city, and Feeney pledged $350 million to help Cornell come out on top. In the process Feeney edged out his foundation’s executive director, who had steered much of the organization’s “social justice” giving, in favor of trusted longtime colleague Christopher Oechsli. Philanthropy recently sat down with Oechsli to discuss Feeney’s legacy.

Philanthropy: For 15 years, the foundation you now run, one of the largest in the world, was utterly secret. That must have been an unusual experience.

Oechsli: It avoided the distractions of publicity. It allowed Chuck Feeney to exercise his desire to see things firsthand without too much attention. People didn’t know who he was—he kept a low profile, and it allowed him to learn a lot. It was also important that the giving was not about gaining recognition but about doing something effective and worthwhile.

Philanthropy: What’s striking about him is not only his classic American up-by-the-bootstraps story, but also that he seems not to have been distracted by everything that came his way because of it.

Oechsli: Empathy is at the root of his recognition that there was something more to be done with his wealth than to consume it himself. His character was shaped in many ways—his education, his family life, seeing those in need around him, his own situation as somebody who was given opportunity through the G.I. Bill. It’s clear that Cornell played a formative role in his experience. He always thought that his contributions to Cornell should enhance opportunities for others.

Above all, what stands out about him is his modesty, his respect and sense of fairness for everyone he came into contact with. That was one of the benefits of being anonymous: He could be a human being on a human scale. Having wealth was not the end-all and be-all to life.

Philanthropy: What are some of the joys and challenges of giving while living?

Oechsli: Chuck says it’s a lot more fun to give while you’re alive than to give while you’re dead. Philanthropy has been a primary and important part of Chuck’s life, and the satisfaction he has derived from it spills over to those who work with him.

But there is a sense of urgency. There is an intensity that comes with it in the sense that your time is limited, and what you’re trying to accomplish is sometimes complex and not easy to address. To have limited time to succeed is a challenge.

Chuck has never been one to rest on laurels. But there are rare moments where you catch him taking in what has been accomplished, often from very modest things. Watching his reaction to a child who has gone through a cleft palate surgery and seeing that child smile and gain confidence is as high a reward as I’ve seen Chuck respond to. He takes great pleasure in seeing an Irish music concert in a facility at Limerick that’s built principally with his funds and adorned with a mosaic by the Irish artist Desmond Kinney. I have seen him beam at a sports facility at a university just to know what it’s done for the students. I’ve seen him walk through a national pediatric hospital in Hanoi and derive satisfaction from seeing that these babies and kids who would otherwise not have care are getting good care. One of the pictures that resonates most for me is of Chuck leaning over the shoulders of Vietnamese students in a library computer lab he funded. That personifies what gives him satisfaction.

Philanthropy: He gave away his fortune long before the Giving Pledge. But when Bill Gates first approached him to join, he was reluctant.

Oechsli: His initial thought was, “How can I pledge to do something I’ve already done? Is it fair to put my name in that position?” But there came a point where he saw the momentum, the commitment of others to the idea, and he felt that it was an appropriate time to lend support.

Chuck encourages people to get engaged in actual giving during their lifetime, rather than just pledging. He will admit to being a very impatient person and wanting to see things happen sooner rather than later. He has enormous respect for Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett and the efforts they are making to promote philanthropy. Promoting philanthropy to others is one of our critical missions as we conclude our work.

Philanthropy: Do you know of other donors who have been inspired by Chuck’s personal example?

Oechsli: Amit Chandra, who heads Bain Capital in India, speaks about wanting to be like Chuck Feeney. I hear indirectly from wealth advisers that clients often have read about and are interested in Chuck’s experience. My sense is that there is an increasing interest in engaging in philanthropy in a significant way in your lifetime. That idea has its roots in Andrew Carnegie, Chuck’s early inspiration, who famously said, “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”

We’re in the process now of talking with others about what Chuck’s experience and reputation bring to the world of philanthropy and how we can enhance that in ways that encourage others to give. It’s a tricky balance because we are very respectful of Chuck’s modest character.

Philanthropy: Here in New York City ground was just broken on the new Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island. Winning the contest to create a major center here for technology and business education was huge for Cornell, and Chuck Feeney’s last-minute gift of $350 million had a lot to do with it.

Oechsli: Chuck became aware early on of the competition. It was big, and Chuck likes big things. One of the comparative advantages of having significant wealth is that you can consider those kinds of projects. It was his willingness to support the Cornell initiative that ultimately contributed to its winning the bid.

Chuck had always felt that Cornell should have a stronger presence in New York City. Cornell engineering is a top-ranked program. They also have a huge challenge ahead of them. It’s certainly a big bet.

Chuck’s big bets have often been associated with geographic locations he knows, understands, and can interact with, and where there is some composite of people, circumstances, and opportunities that present a significant upside from the investment. You see that in Ireland where Chuck invested over $1 billion. You can see it in Australia where we have $500 million invested in technology and building a knowledge economy, or in Vietnam with over $350 million. There is a geographic focus to the bet, a cluster of initiatives around a location that in the aggregate are quite large.

Strong leaders and a philanthropic environment that’s on the upswing are important. It’s not unlike catching the wave in business, being in the right place at the right time. The big-bet philosophy is about moving resources into areas where the opportunities are most promising.

Philanthropy: Chuck Feeney has a strong interest in capital facilities. What are the attractions of paying for bricks and mortar?

Oechsli: It’s easy to dismiss buildings as static, old-fashioned philanthropy—a monument to self. But when you think of buildings and Chuck and Atlantic, you think of investments associated with a promising group of people in a dynamic environment. We don’t just lead first with the building and find a place to plop it down; we erect buildings when there’s a real sense that a certain place and the people in and around it can benefit from them. And not one building is named after Chuck or Atlantic. One third of our grantmaking to date has been to capital projects, but two thirds has been in people, programs, and opportunities, which closely complement those buildings or link to the activities inside. Chuck has always felt that buildings are just a superb resource to advance opportunity.  And they’re a tangible manifestation of giving while living—you can see them take shape as well as see what happens in and around them.

Philanthropy: In Ireland, his gifts transformed the higher education system in the span of a few years.

Oechsli: Chuck had gone to Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, and so he was interested in tourism and the hotel industry, and so some initial investments were made in that area from the business side. After he became more closely acquainted with Ireland and saw its upside, its potential, and its needs, Chuck’s experience at Cornell led him to gravitate to the higher education sector. And then, as others in Ireland gave him advice and worked with him, they were able to think of ways to invest in big, big ways in making Ireland a knowledge economy.

There were many times where Chuck would put propositions on the table that were quite surprising to people who just weren’t ready to think that big. Leading in that way can be very satisfying. It breaks ground and creates initiatives that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Philanthropy: There’s more of a culture of philanthropy here in the United States than in many parts of the world. Are you seeing any signs of change in the foreign countries where Feeney has been a big giver?

 Oechsli: We hope we’re seeing change. Philanthropy is commonplace in the U.S., although there should be more of it here. We have also sought to encourage philanthropy in Ireland. Chuck has been very active in promoting philanthropy in Australia, and the press there and in Ireland have been focusing increasingly on the impact of his and others’ philanthropy in those places. Vietnam is in a nascent stage. We have been working in South Africa to promote philanthropy and encourage giving. We’ve funded organizations that are good resources for those thinking about philanthropy. Recently we helped launch the Bermuda Community Foundation, the first such foundation on the island.

Philanthropy: Atlantic Philanthropies experienced some major staff upheaval in the past few years. What happened?

Oechsli: One of the challenges of any foundation with a living donor is coping with his or her entrepreneurial spirit that is dynamic and not much bounded by structure. An organization—a typical foundation—by nature needs to plan, predict, and organize around strategies, budgets, and targeted outcomes. This easily lends itself to a less dynamic or responsive approach than that of an entrepreneurial individual donor, and there are inevitable tensions. For a period, Atlantic fell out of tune with its donor’s approach, and there were difficult issues.

It can be tricky to ascertain and work with the donor’s intent. But it’s still probably easier to do so if the donor is still with you and active, as with Atlantic. Donor intent involves not just the fields of philanthropy to be taken up, but also the values, motivation, and preferred approach applied in each field. Chuck’s values are very much about opportunity, dignity, and fairness, and you can interpret and apply those in different ways.

Philanthropy: Given that room for interpretation, how does a foundation keep in step with its donor’s intent? And how can a foundation recover the donor’s vision after it has started to drift away?

Oechsli: By refocusing on how a donor hoped to make a difference. You have to be a student of the donor. The donor’s intent consists of a range of elements—what motivated him, why did he want to give, what are the approaches, what are the values. Chuck is also big on results; he always says, “Well, what have we got to show for it?” The donor sweated to earn this money—don’t waste it. It’s important for the enterprise and the donor to keep interacting. That’s challenging, but it is the dynamic tension that creates the best prospects for effective philanthropy.