‘Giving while living’ philanthropist Charles Feeney gives away the last of his fortune

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Charles F Feeney made a promise in 2011 to give away his fortune by the end of 2016. He has kept his own promise.

American philanthropist, 85-year-old Charles Francis Feeney (1931-), known as Chuck, of Atlantic Philanthropies, a collection of private foundations that he started and funded, had about $1.5 billion remaining of his fortune in 2011 when he made that promise. Last month, Feeney and Atlantic Philanthropies awarded their final grant of $7 million to Cornell University to support students doing community service work.

He calls his philanthropy “giving while living.”

Born and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey, his ancestry is Irish. Feeney served as a radio operator in the Air Force and attended Cornell University on the G.I. Bill. In 1960, he and a partner set up a company that sold items such as brandy and cigars to travelers in duty-free shops at airports. It became a booming success.

In 1984, at the age of 53, he secretly transferred all of his assets to Atlantic Philanthropies, including his 38.75% ownership of the duty-free business. He added to the Atlantic Philanthropies amount by investing in companies such as Facebook, Priceline, E-Trade, Alibaba and Legent.

Altogether, he has contributed $8 billion to his philanthropies, which have supported higher education, public health, human rights, and scientific research. None of the major American philanthropists have given away a greater proportion of their wealth than Feeney.

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Most of his wealth given away since 1982 was in secrecy, leading to Forbes magazine calling him the “James Bond of philanthropy.” For years, the money he gave away had a requirement that beneficiaries should not publicize the donation or grant.

During the early 1990s, 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 Philanthropies grants paid to create a public health system in Vietnam, and to provide access to anti-retroviral treatment for AIDS in southern Africa. He also advocated for the end of the death penalty for juveniles. The last rounds of grants, about $600 million, included support for Atlantic Fellow, a group helping young emerging leaders working in their countries for more equitable societies.

In 1997 Time Magazine said that “Feeney’s beneficence already ranks among the grandest of any living American.”

He cooperated for Conor O’Clery’s 2007 biography, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing.

Until he was 75, he traveled only in economy class, and carried reading materials in a plastic bag. Feeney does not own a car. For many years, when in New York, he had burgers for lunch instead of restaurant meals. His name does not appear in gilded letters, chiseled marble or other forms of writing anywhere on the one thousand buildings he owns in five continents.

His remaining personal net worth is slightly more than $2 million. Feeney has four daughters and one son. He married twice. His first wife Danielle is French. Feeney and his second wife, Helga, now live in a rented apartment in San Francisco. “You can only wear one pair of pants at a time,” Feeney has said.

In 2012, all the universities of Ireland, north and south, jointly conferred on him an Honorary Doctorate of Laws. He also received Ireland’s ‘Presidential Distinguished Service Award’ for Irish Abroad. In 2012, he was awarded the UCSF Medal for outstanding personal contributions to the University of California’s health science mission.

In 2014 American billionaire Warren Buffett said of Feeney, “he’s my hero and Bill Gates’ hero. He should be everybody’s hero.”

Photographs: Sitting by Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles Times, and by forbes.com (top).

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