The Anonymous Giver
Charles “Chuck” Feeney might be the most famous anonymous donor in history. Since 1982 Feeney has given away billions, and aside from a very small circle of advisors, no one knew. While the tradition of anonymous giving is not new, Feeney’s commitment to anonymity existed for many years until it became clear that too many people knew his identity and his secret was out.
But Feeney isn’t only known as “the anonymous donor.” He is also known as the donor who decided to “spend down” his entire fortune by 2020. In a world where philanthropists agonize over their legacies and worry about how their children will (or won’t) honor their intent, Feeney went in the opposite direction. His entire fortune, now in a group of foundations called The Atlantic Philanthropies, will be spent down by 2020. Feeney is truly committed to “giving while living,” and his decision to end his requirement of anonymity stems from this value. By spending down, Feeney could influence others to give as much as they could, experience the joy of giving while they were alive, and use their presence as a positive, guiding force.
Feeney is known for his unassuming lifestyle. He owns no cars or homes, flies coach and wears a $15 watch. When his children were growing up, they all had summer jobs as waiters and cashiers. This insistence on being a “what you see is what you get” kind of person seems to stem from his modest upbringing and hard-working, middle-class parents.
Born in 1931 and raised in Elizabeth, N.J. during the Depression, Feeney identified with his working-class, tight-knit community “where people supported and watched out for each other.” His parents were givers — his father was a member of a Catholic fraternal organization that gave financial aid to members in need and their families, and his mother was a nurse who did favors for neighbors without taking any credit for the good deeds.
As he began to accumulate more money, he became less comfortable with his wealth and often disliked the rich set that surrounded him and his wife. One of his philanthropic advisors said that he wanted to be accepted for who he is as a person, and not as someone with a great deal of money.
In childhood Feeney showed early signs of an entrepreneurial style. He was always thinking of new business ideas, including selling Christmas cards door-to-door and shoveling sidewalks during snowstorms. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1948 and after his service took advantage of the G.I. Bill to attend Cornell University, becoming the first member of his family to attend college.
After graduating, Feeney and his partners went into business selling five-pack boxes of liquor to American sailors in ports around Europe. Success in the early years depended on his knowing the location of the Navy ships before his competition. In later years, he expanded the business into a worldwide empire of duty-free airport shops that sell luxury items to tourists. The business, Duty Free Shoppers (DFS), became the world’s largest luxury goods retailer. In 1996, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the French luxury goods conglomerate, purchased a controlling interest in DFS for nearly $2.5 billion.
In November 1984, Feeney transferred his entire 38.75 percent interest in DFS to his foundations – Atlantic Foundation and the Atlantic Trust. The exact value of the gift is unclear, but it is estimated to have been between $500 million and $800 million. The foundations, which would eventually become known as The Atlantic Philanthropies, are based in Bermuda in order to avoid the disclosure requirements of private foundations in the United States. After transferring his funds, his net worth fell to below $5 million, having given away over 99% of his net worth.
Feeney’s insistence on being seen as a regular person was not only a catalyst for how much he gave, but how he gave. His reasons for giving in the first place were personal. He felt that he simply had enough money, and money did not drive his life. And he was very clear that he did not want his children to have a sense of entitlement. Regarding the geographic focus of his philanthropy, he supports Ireland, the land of his ancestors. And he gives in Vietnam because he opposed the Vietnam War and felt that a level of restitution was due.
His requirement of anonymity in the early years was driven by several factors, including his desire to avoid unsolicited pleas for donations. His 1981 $700,000 gift to Cornell resulted in a torrent of solicitations from a variety of organizations. He was also deeply uncomfortable with the idea of people feeling indebted to him.
But his decision in 1997 to go public as a philanthropist was driven by necessity: A lawsuit filed over the sale of DFS would have revealed his donations. Since that time, Feeney has been an outspoken supporter of giving while living. He feels that there are many potential philanthropists who haven’t given because they haven’t discovered what he calls the “pleasure of giving.” He also feels strongly that his wealth should be used to solve the problems of this generation.
Feeney’s giving has evolved over the years, becoming increasingly strategic.
◆ His early giving focused on his alma mater Cornell University, which received a large portion of the foundation’s initial funding. Most of that money went to a program called the Cornell Tradition, which supplements the college loans of students who perform community service.
◆ Later, Feeney included Vietnam in his portfolio. From 1998 to 2006, The Atlantic Philanthropies provided $220 million for libraries, higher education and public health programs.
◆ In 1999, The Atlantic Philanthropies deepened its commitment to Ireland. Throughout the 1990s, the organization provided around $69 million to various building projects at individual Irish colleges. In 1999, it embarked on a project to transform the research capacities of Irish colleges and universities. The Atlantic Philanthropies eventually gave $275 million and leveraged another $660 million from the Irish government.
The foundation has made grants totaling more than $5 billion as of December 2009. Funding is provided to organizations in Australia, Bermuda, Ireland, Northern Ireland, South Africa, United States and Vietnam. The foundation focuses its work on four areas: aging, children and youth, health, and reconciliation and human rights.
Feeney’s generosity has had a catalytic effect in several cases:
◆ Due to the investment in university-level research in Ireland, 64 research institutes, centers and programs have been created.
◆ Tens of millions of dollars are transforming the health infrastructure in Vietnam.
◆ The foundation supported City Year when it was a fledgling organization and helped it to expand to 14 cities. City Year became the model for President Clinton’s AmeriCorps program.
The Atlantic Philanthropies are among the largest foundations in the world. They use their clout to encourage others to give while they’re alive, ensuring that their philanthropic priorities are honored and that issues can be tackled before they expand and become unwieldy. This encouragement of donors to ask themselves the necessary questions about their “philanthropic lifespan” helps to inspire others to feel the joy of philanthropy.