A key safeguard to protect donor intent: Giving while living

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. Philanthropic heavy hitters like Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Richard and Joan Branson, Larry Ellison, and Eli and Edythe Broad have all made giving while living a priority. As of 2020, more than 200 high-net-worth individuals and couples had signed the Gates and Buffett Giving Pledge, promising to give more than half of their wealth away during their lifetimes—albeit in many cases to foundations that will operate after the donors’ deaths.           

Chuck Feeney and Atlantic Philanthropies

Many of these philanthropists have drawn inspiration from a donor who has fulfilled his pledge to give everything away in his lifetime—Charles (“Chuck”) Feeney, now age 89, co-founder of Duty Free Shops. His Atlantic Philanthropies has distributed a total of $8 billion over 35 years. Atlantic Philanthropies concluded nearly all its giving in 2016 and plans to close its doors permanently in 2020, the largest foundation in history 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 that publicity might discourage other donors from giving to the same worthy causes.

Feeney’s motivation to give in his lifetime was threefold:

1. He wanted his giving to stay nimble

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.

2. 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,” says Feeney.

3. He wanted to embrace the pure joy of “giving while living”

Feeney is 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?” has encouraged other donors to consider giving in their lifetimes, noting that it “has been a rich source of joy and satisfaction for me, and for my family as well.” Feeney is also a man who never let himself get attached to money. He is famously known for wearing a $15 watch, insisting on flying coach, and using plastic grocery bags to carry around his belongings.

David Weekley and the Weekley Family Foundation

Other donors view the practice of divesting themselves of their wealth during their lifetimes as wise stewardship. “For some reason, God gave me more financial resources than I need or deserve, and therefore I believe I’m supposed to be the one to give them away,” says Houston philanthropist David Weekley. “To me, the folks who earn and help create these resources have a responsibility to invest in non-profit organizations with the same acumen and talents that helped create the resources in the first place.”

Weekley established a family foundation in 1991 and today works to make grants of nearly $20 million a year. A recent focus for the foundation has been to fund organizations across the globe that focus on human flourishing at scale, addressing mind, body, and spirit. For Weekley, this stage in his life demands a new perspective: “It really takes a different mindset that I wasn’t prepared to have 10 years ago, or even five years ago. It’s time to move to the distribution part of my life cycle. And while I’ve been distributing in the past, I’ve still been accruing in terms of my net worth. But now I need and want to start distributing my current net worth, which is different than giving out of income.”

The best safeguard for your intent

One enormous benefit of giving all your wealth away while living is obvious—it effectively eliminates the risk of a violation of your donor intent in the future. When done wisely, it also helps protect donor intent in the present. Even living donors can find themselves frustrated by staff and board members who steer grantmaking in unwelcome directions and by grantees who ignore the terms of gifts. A diligent and observant living donor focused on effective giving in the here and now is far more likely to ensure that funds are used for appropriate purposes than a donor who bets on a foundation left behind after his or her death.

Most important—as Chuck Feeney and David Weekley understand—giving away your fortune while living enables you to address today’s pressing problems, to be directly involved in solutions, and to invest time, wisdom, and business skills in addition to wealth.