The notion of spending much of one’s fortune while living is a concept briskly taking hold in philanthropic circles around the globe. Giving away money fast—to do good right now—is an idea championed by some of the most high-impact, high-net-worth donors of the modern era. Many of these philanthropists have drawn inspiration from a donor who fulfilled his pledge to give everything away in his lifetime.
Charles “Chuck” Feeney, who died on October 9 at the age of 92, was an entrepreneur and pioneer of duty-free shops. His Atlantic Philanthropies distributed a total of $8 billion over 38 years across five continents, concluded nearly all its giving in 2016 and permanently closed in 2020, the largest foundation to date to spend itself out of existence.
Feeney’s story is highly unusual in the annals of philanthropic giving. With a single stroke in 1982, he divested himself of his fortune and dedicated it to charitable uses, and he did this anonymously. He chose anonymity out of heartfelt modesty, out of concerns about his family’s security, out of his entrepreneurial inclination to “kick the tires” of prospective grantees without being recognized and out of concern publicity might discourage other donors from giving to the same worthy causes.
As Conor O’Clery wrote in “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune,” “Feeney’s philanthropic model is unique in its combination of size, offshore location, freedom of action, flexibility, anonymity, limited life span, willingness to make big bets and global impact. It is a philanthropic landmark of the new century.”
Feeney’s motivation to give in his lifetime was threefold. First, he hoped to dodge the bureaucratic sclerosis that afflicts foundations as they age, seeking instead the nimbleness and “opportunity-driven” engagement he enjoyed in his business. Second, he wanted to maximize the impact of his gifts. “I see little reason to delay giving when so much good can be achieved through supporting worthwhile causes today. If I have $10 in my pocket, and I do something with it today, it’s already producing $10 worth of good,” Feeney once said. Most important of all, he embraced the pure joy of “giving while living,” which maximizes both the size of gifts and their pleasures.
Indeed, Feeney was perhaps the best spokesperson for the satisfaction derived from generous giving and from seeing with his own eyes the impact made. The man who consistently asked his associates, “What will we have to show for it?” encouraged other donors to consider giving in their lifetimes, noting it “has been a rich source of joy and satisfaction for me, and for my family as well.” Feeney was also a man who never let himself get attached to money. He was famously known for wearing a $15 watch, insisting on flying coach and using plastic grocery bags to carry around his belongings. “He has loved making money, but not having it,” as O’Clery put it.
I was fortunate to work at the Ithaca, New York, office of The Atlantic Philanthropies for nearly 12 years – from early 1984 through 1995 – and even luckier to have had some personal contact with Feeney. Before the first time I saw him, a colleague had warned me that whatever notions I had about “how billionaires look” would be completely blown away. She was right. Feeney arrived at our office looking like any harried commuter, complete with a rumpled raincoat and the ubiquitous plastic bag.
On another occasion, he asked if I might have time to go to our local Woolworth’s to replace his broken watchband and handed me a plastic watchband and a five-dollar bill. I realized that every story I had heard about his personal frugality was accurate, and indeed returned to the office with a plastic watchband – and change.
Rest in peace, Mr. Feeney. You gave me a wonderful career I had never envisioned, friendships that continue to this day and an example I joyfully share with other philanthropists.
Portions of this blog were previously published by Philanthropy Roundtable in Protecting Your Legacy. You can learn more about Chuck Feeney and his philanthropy in The Atlantic Philanthropies Archives at Feeney’s alma mater, Cornell University, and on the website of The Atlantic Philanthropies.