Rarely has anyone dreamt of giving away as much money as they could in their lifetime, but that’s not the case for billionaire Charles “Chuck” Feeney. In fact, he had been working towards that exact goal in the last four decades.
Now, in 2020, he has finally fulfilled it.
Over the last four decades, Feeney, 89, has donated over $8 billion to various charities, organizations, and universities worldwide through his foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies. His plan was to give away all his fortune before he died, and he did it all anonymously. He went to great lengths to keep his generous deeds a secret. Because of his illicit philanthropic sprees, Forbes dubbed him the “James Bond of Philanthropy.”
Robert Miller and Feeney founded the famed airport retailer Duty Free Shoppers in 1960. The retail giant now operates in 11 major airports and 20 galleria stores. While he amassed billions from this huge enterprise, Feeney maintained an incredibly frugal lifestyle.
According to a New York Times feature read, Feeney traveled only in coach until he was 75. He would also carry his reading materials in a plastic bag. Instead of dining in luxury restaurants when he’s in New York, the billionaire would frequent Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion on East 57th Street, where he would always order the diner’s burgers.
He was one of the first signatories of the Giving While Living pledge, a movement encouraging the super-wealthy to donate 50% or more of their fortunes while they’re still alive.
Feeney’s charitable spirit inspired fellow billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to sign their giving pledge in 2010.
“We learned a lot. We would do some things differently, but I am very satisfied. I feel very good about completing this on my watch,” Feeney told Forbes. “My thanks to all who joined us on this journey. And to those wondering about Giving While Living: Try it, you’ll like it.”
Where did the $8 billion go?
Feeney donated $3.7 billion to education, including almost $1 billion to his beloved alma mater Cornell. Over $870 million went to causes related to human rights and social change, such as $62 million in grants to revoke the death penalty in the U.S. and $76 million for campaigns supporting the ratification of Obamacare.
He also gave $270 million towards improving Vietnam’s public healthcare and gifted $176 million to the Global Brain Health Institute at the University of California, San Francisco. One of his final donations was a $350 million grant for Cornell to build a technology campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City.
On September 14, 2020, Feeney marked the completion of his four-decade mission by signing the paperwork to close The Atlantic Philanthropies. The ceremony was held over Zoom with the foundation’s board, which included prominent figures such as Bill Gates, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The closure date of The Atlantic Philanthropies was set years ago as part of Feeney’s long-term plan of making donations that had significant risk and impact. By establishing a deadline, Feeney was able to maintain a sense of urgency and discipline towards meeting his goal. It also allowed the foundation more time to record its history, ponder on their wins and losses, and formulate a strategy for other organizations to follow.
“Our giving is based on the opportunities, not a plan to stay in business for a long time,” Feeney told Forbes’ Steven Pelosi in 2019.
Feeney has set aside $2 million for himself and his wife, Helga Feeney, to live on for the rest of their lives. They currently reside in a simple apartment in San Francisco. He’s as frugal as ever, refusing to own a car and sporting a $10 Casio watch.
Feeney spoke about the reason behind his mission of giving away all his fortune.
“I see little reason to delay giving when so much good can be achieved through supporting worthwhile causes,” he explained. “Besides, it’s a lot more fun to give while you live than give while you’re dead.”
“The world is so full of people who have less than they need,” Feeney said in a video on The Atlantic Philanthropies website. “Each time you can address their problem, you help them to move forward and think that life can change, and I can change it.”
40 years later, the world is in a much better place, thanks to Charles Feeney’s exceptional generosity and compassion.