The James Bond of Philanthropy

In my view, with great wealth comes great responsibility. It gives you the capacity to do tremendous good or harm in the world, far more than the overwhelming majority of fellow humans. A little-known Irish-American businessman named Chuck Feeney exemplifies the incredible moral potential that the world’s richest can exercise if they so choose. Forbes did a piece on this amazing philanthropist in 2012, likening him to James Bond for his uniquely low-key and strategic approach to charitable giving:

Over the last 30 years he’s crisscrossed the globe conducting a clandestine operation to give away a $7.5 billion fortune derived from hawking cognac, perfume and cigarettes in his empire of duty-free shops. His foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, has funneled $6.2 billion into education, science, health care, aging and civil rights in the U.S., Australia, Vietnam, Bermuda, South Africa and Ireland. Few living people have given away more, and no one at his wealth level has ever given their fortune away so completely during their lifetime. The remaining $1.3 billion will be spent by 2016, and the foundation will be shuttered in 2020. While the business world’s titans obsess over piling up as many riches as possible, Feeney is working double time to die broke.

Feeney embarked on this mission in 1984, in the middle of a decade marked by wealth creation–and conspicuous consumption–when he slyly transferred his entire 38.75% ownership stake in Duty Free Shoppers to what became the Atlantic Philanthropies. “I concluded that if you hung on to a piece of the action for yourself you’d always be worrying about that piece,” says Feeney, who estimates his current net worth at $2 million (with an “m”). “People used to ask me how I got my jollies, and I guess I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t helping people.”

What Feeney does is give big money to big problems–whether bringing peace to Northern Ireland, modernizing Vietnam’s health care system or seeding $350 million to turn New York’s long-neglected Roosevelt Island into a technology hub. He’s not waiting to grant gifts after he’s gone nor to set up a legacy fund that annually tosses pennies at a $10 problem. He hunts for causes where he can have dramatic impact and goes all-in. “Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model,” Bill Gates tells FORBES, “and the ultimate example of giving while living.”

I highly recommend you read the rest of the article, as it eventually discusses the nuances of Feeny’s character and his rather sophisticated philanthropic methods. The amount of wealth he is donating in both proportional and absolute terms is staggering enough without the added humility and strategic approach.

It is unfortunate that amid ever-higher rates of inequality — best epitomized by the fact that a mere 85 individuals own more wealth than around half of the world’s poorest people (3.5 billion) — most of the world’s elites aren’t following in Feeny’s footsteps, or at the very least donating more than a mere percentage of their assets. There’s a lot of untapped potential out there, and even a number of us who are comfortably well-off could be doing more.

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