The James Bond of Philanthropy

If you were a billionaire, how much of your wealth would you give away to charity? No doubt most people would donate something, albeit only a fraction of their total wealth. But what about giving nearly every penny you had — and doing so without any credit for your generosity?

As the New York Times reported, 85-year-old Irish American businessman Charles F. Feeney just finished giving away the last of his fortune, after promising five years ago that he would do so by the end of 2016, a commitment few would make let alone follow through on.

Last month, Mr. Feeney and Atlantic [Philanthropies, a collection of private foundations he had started and funded], completed the sprint and made a final grant, $7 million to Cornell University, to support students doing community service work.

He had officially emptied his pockets, meeting his aspiration of “giving while living.” Altogether, he had contributed $8 billion to his philanthropies, which have supported higher education, public health, human rights and scientific research.

“You’re always nervous handling so much money, but we seem to have worked it pretty well,” Mr. Feeney, now 85, said last week in a phone interview.

His remaining personal net worth is slightly more than $2 million. That’s not quite broke, by any standard, but it is a modest amount for a man who controlled thousands of times as much wealth. He and his wife, Helga, now live in a rented apartment in San Francisco.

That’s a remarkable amount of magnanimity from so wealthy and accomplished a businessman. For most of his life, even after long being fabulously rich, he traveled coach, carried things in plastic bags, and ate at hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Perhaps being born to blue collar Irish immigrants during the Great Depression instilled this deep-seated frugality and humility.

As if such astounding generosity was not admirable enough, Feeney has done all this without the publicity and glory that often motivates large scale donations (indeed, he had secretly transferred his assets to Atlantic Philanthropies in 1984, around the time he had first started embarking on his super-philanthropy, and was exposed over a decade due a business dispute forcing the disclosure of these funds).

None of the major American philanthropists have given away a greater proportion of their wealth, and starting in 1982, Mr. Feeney did most of this in complete secrecy, leading Forbes magazine to call him the “James Bond of philanthropy”.

His name does not appear in gilded letters, chiseled marble or other forms of writing anywhere on the 1,000 buildings across five continents that $2.7 billion of his money paid for. For years, Atlantic’s support came with a requirement that the beneficiaries not publicize its involvement.

Beyond Mr. Feeney’s reticence about blowing his own horn, “it was also a way to leverage more donations — some other individual might contribute to get the naming rights”, said Christopher G. Oechsli, the president and chief executive officer of Atlantic.

During the early 1990s, Mr. Feeney met secretly with paramilitary forces in Belfast, Northern Ireland, urging them to drop armed guerrilla conflict and promising financial support if they embraced electoral politics. Atlantic grants paid to create a public health system in Vietnam, and to provide access to antiretroviral treatment for AIDS in southern Africa. The last rounds of grants, about $600 million, included support for Atlantic Fellows, described as young emerging leaders working in their countries for healthier, more equitable societies.

What a paragon of virtue. Imagine what more Chuck Feeneys in the world could do.

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