Chuck Feeney, who died October 9 at the age of 92, may be the ultimate example of giving while living, as even his billionaire peers have long observed. The idea of giving while living has grown in popularity in recent years, although Andrew Carnegie’s exhortations on the practice date back to the 1800s. More recently, donors like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have urged something similar with their “Giving Pledge” campaign (although the Pledge allows for gifts to be disbursed either during life or in one’s estate). Both Gates and Warren acknowledge that the exemplar of the kind of open-handed giving they hope to encourage is Feeney, the leading mind behind the multibillion-dollar success of Duty Free Shoppers.
Feeney ranks as one of the world’s most generous givers of all time, not only because of the total amount he donated but also because he donated nearly all his wealth while only middle-aged. Even more impressively, Feeney kept an extremely low profile for decades.
He was born in 1931 “into a struggling Irish-American family in the blue-collar neighborhood of Elmora, New Jersey,” the only son among his hardworking parents’ six children, writes his biographer Conor O’Clery. His father, a daily Mass-goer and Knight of Columbus, and his mother, a Red Cross volunteer who worked as a nurse and cared for the family, exercised impressive charity toward others, but they considered themselves perfectly ordinary—and, in their neighborhood, they probably were.
Feeney would go on to be one of the largest donors in American history, with his total giving reaching approximately $7.5 billion by the time his term-limited foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, closed its doors in 2020.
After high school, Feeney joined the Air Force and in 1948 was assigned to an intelligence unit based in Japan. He learned how to keep secrets and taught himself Japanese, lessons that would prove enormously consequential. Leaving the military after the Korean War, he went to Cornell’s School of Hotel Management, which appealed to his love of travel and entrepreneurial bent. It was a real stretch. No one in his family had been to college, and only one other student from his Catholic high school had gone on to university. He “was already showing a trait that would assert itself throughout his life: thinking big and aiming to achieve the best result, even if it seemed unattainable,” writes O’Clery.
The Hotel School had Cornell’s lowest SAT scores but outperformed the rest of the university at incubating entrepreneurs, turning out men like James McLamore and David Edgerton, the co-founders of Burger King, and Michael Egan, who brought success to Alamo car rentals. Feeney supported himself in school by starting niche businesses and working odd jobs.
After graduation he headed to France on whose southern coast he launched a business: a summer camp for the children of American naval personnel. While there, he discovered the business of selling duty-free liquor to sailors. In the coming years, he and a handful of colleagues would vastly expand their product line and narrowly escape numerous government agents and tax collectors. He eventually shifted his base of operations to the Pacific, because Japan’s protectionist policies made citizens in its swelling economy hungry for duty-free bargains.
Amazingly, the tight-lipped business went unnoticed by the world for years. Few people had any idea how much Feeney and his three partners were earning, even as their Hong Kong store, for instance, generated sales 50 times higher per square foot than Harrod’s in London. Wall Street stocks averaged declines of 70 percent from 1968 to 1974, even as cash dividends to Feeney and his partners rose by several hundred percent a year.
In 1984, Feeney secretly transferred nearly all his personal wealth to Atlantic Philanthropies, a Bermuda-based foundation. The gift of his privately held corporate stock was valued at between $500 million and $1 billion, and it formed only the beginning of the foundation’s wealth, which was unusual in that it involved possession of Feeney’s various business interests, which he still managed. Feeney’s investments continued to generate tremendous sums of money—$155 million in 1988 from Duty Free Shoppers alone. As his attention turned to philanthropy and his personal net worth dropped below $5 million, Feeney kept racking up business successes, so much so that his foundation struggled to ensure its investments didn’t hit “extraordinary pay dirt” and ruin its effort to donate over $1 million per day in order to close its doors in Feeney’s lifetime.
Whether earning or handing out money, Feeney was an extraordinary entrepreneur, a breed that delights in risk-taking, is restless, forward-looking, highly flexible, and full of energy. Feeney was motivated not so much by money as by challenges to be faced and overcome.
Another classic entrepreneurial trait Feeney possessed: he was never a cool “professional.” In fact, nearly all his brushes with the polished professional world—in business and philanthropy—show how that glossy realm’s natives are inferior to rougher, humbler sorts like Feeney and his partners. For example, during a storm early in Duty Free Shoppers’ life, every executive with a professional credential abandoned ship. That revealed their foolish timidity, when the partner with a mere 2 percent stake later joined the Forbes 400 list.
The highest entrepreneurial virtue, clearly evident in Feeney, is a mysterious sort of second sight. It’s related to ambition in that it dreams big, and it’s akin to what is called “intelligence,” but not the kind of small-minded number-crunching that many who sneer at businessmen imagine to be the secret of commercial success. Rather, it’s a kind of intuition that senses opportunities where others do not, that recognizes a sea change coming from only the slightest shifts of wind.
Consider a business example of this intelligence that foreshadowed Feeney’s later philanthropic achievements: In the 1970s, Feeney decided the island of Saipan would be a perfect place to expand his Asian operations, even though it was reachable only by island-hopper planes that “taxied up a dirt runway to a Quonset hut.” Saipan had no resorts, no restaurants, no attractions—no tourism of any sort. Duty Free Shoppers risked $5 million on developing the island, building the airport, setting up stores, cafés, and hotels. Soon, a transformed Saipan had 100,000 visitors a year.
Little wonder, then, that Feeney’s philanthropy was marked by an entrepreneurial spirit, especially the entrepreneur’s hunt for other entrepreneurs, and by a delight in large building projects. Feeney stumbled into a friendship, for instance, with a college president in Limerick. The Irish academic impressed Feeney, and the philanthropist later poured millions into the school. But Feeney saw these grants as part of a larger plan, sprung from a love of his family’s homeland. He wanted to significantly improve the nation’s well-being by raising the quality of its entire higher education system, which he did with years of aggressive philanthropic investment that eventually reached every college on the Emerald Isle. Now Ireland is known as a “tiger,” and Ernst & Young’s Irish Entrepreneur of the Year award merits a prime-time TV show.
Feeney’s years-long dedication and vision brought similar transformations in Vietnam, where he focused on the nation’s hospital and educational systems, and in Australia, where a total investment of a half-billion dollars remade the biomedical research sector. In addition, his Down Under philanthropy is credited with helping to catalyze a dramatic increase in the citizenry’s charitable giving.
Nor are Feeney’s transformations limited to foreign nations. Though it’s not widely known, he also provided vital seed funds to two social entrepreneurs who helped to reshape their sectors. Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America, changed the landscape for teacher training; two Feeney contributions that came just as she began her plans were, she said, “critical” to her success. Similarly, Martin Seligman pioneered “positive psychology,” a revolutionary approach that asks, not “What’s wrong and how can we help?” but “What’s right and how can we strengthen it?” Seligman said his new endeavor survived the “newborn” phase thanks to a seven-figure grant Feeney provided after first requesting only a three-page proposal and budget.
Feeney’s life offers many lessons for donors: Engage thoughtfully with grantees (“kick the tires,” as he liked to say). Look especially for energetic, entrepreneurial men and women. Give them the credit when they succeed. Encourage collaboration between your grantees, as Feeney did with universities around the globe. Avoid self-aggrandizement (Feeney famously refused to have his name on any building and rarely accepted any prize). Consider anonymous giving, but know that anonymity is a two-edged sword. (For years Feeney kept his philanthropy as fiercely secretive as he had his company, but anonymity wasn’t always helpful and eventually became impossible, especially at his scale.) When not acting anonymously, be as transparent as possible in your operations. Read classic reflections on giving by Andrew Carnegie and Maimonides.
Feeney especially valued the latter sage’s teaching that the highest form of giving is to help others “become self-sufficient through training and education.” Carnegie, too, urged donors to provide “the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise,” and Feeney heeded that advice, as well as Carnegie’s call for “modest, unostentatious living.”
Above all, Feeney followed Carnegie in resolving to give away his wealth before he died. His motivation was threefold: He hoped to avoid the sclerosis that afflicts foundations as they age; he hoped to ensure his donor intent would be respected; and above all, he believed that “giving while living” maximizes both the quality of philanthropy and its pleasures. As he told fellow donors in 2014, “You get more satisfaction from giving while you’re alive and involved. You learn and make adjustments to achieve the highest and best use of your resources. You get to see what you’ve helped accomplish.” One of Feeney’s favorite jokes was, “I want the last check I write to bounce.”
A final lesson Feeney’s life teaches: Donor intent is always difficult to maintain, even if you’re giving while living. After Feeney moved his fortune into Atlantic Philanthropies, he intended to remain its guiding spirit, but over time, a new CEO and independent board members began to send most of its grant stream into left-wing political advocacy. Though Feeney largely agreed with their politics, he became concerned that their grantmaking left the foundation too little capital to make the kind of big bets he favored on bricks-and-mortar projects. After some painful skirmishes that endangered his health, the board and leadership shifted, and Feeney was again permitted to fund nine-figure projects like a $350 million grant to his beloved Cornell, which helped it win a competition to build a new tech campus in New York City.
That Cornell project was classic Feeney. The headlines focused on the size of the grant, which was the largest the school had ever received, but Feeney focused on two other considerations. First, Cornell needed something dramatic to beat out Stanford for the opportunity. Second, the location was the city’s neglected Roosevelt Island, which Feeney hoped to revitalize through the effort to create a “Silicon Valley East.” As Forbes reported, “Feeney is betting top tech firms and new startups will follow, eventually producing thousands of jobs and billions of revenue for the region.” A similar vision lay behind Feeney’s $394 million in gifts to build up the University of California San Francisco’s medical facilities in the run-down Mission Bay neighborhood.
Frank Rhodes, longtime president of Cornell before he became a board member at Atlantic Philanthropies, told the Philanthropy Roundtable that without Feeney’s extraordinary backing, the university would never have been able to undertake the Roosevelt Island tech project. But Rhodes adds that Feeney’s knack for seeing what needs to be done showed up in smaller ways, too. Rhodes recalls a trip with Feeney to Vietnam to see the opening of a hospital the philanthropist had made possible. Because he loved to keep a low profile and mingle with ordinary people, Feeney was able to observe how families that came to the hospital to visit a relative struggled to make meals for themselves; they were often reduced to cooking in a patient’s room. “On the spot he committed to solving the problem and addressing funds for it,” says Rhodes.
Similarly, Gara LaMarche, the Soros-operative CEO at Atlantic Philanthropies who eventually stepped down after the clash of funding strategies arose, remained impressed by Feeney’s philanthropic gifts. LaMarche told the Philanthropy Roundtable that he has worked with and known several living donors and observed how their giving “tends to be closely related to the way they made their money.” Bill Gates, for example, “is a technologist, so he has a problem-solving mentality and looks for technological solutions. George Soros is a hedge fund guy who makes big bets, and his philanthropy is not risk averse; he often moves quickly with large sums of money on significant questions of social policy. Chuck Feeney made his mark in retail, and therefore he’s a kick-the-tires kind of person. He can look at a site and see a physical structure arising. But ‘bricks and mortar’ for its own sake is not what Feeney was about. What really moved him was helping institutions grow and serve people.”
O’Clery’s biography does not penetrate into the reclusive Feeney’s interior thinking, unfortunately. It never tries to understand such paradoxes as why Feeney moved leftward politically over his life. That’s puzzling because in his giving he sought to strengthen people’s self-reliance, while in his business his central success came from outfoxing taxmen the world over. One old friend said he “believes people can do more with money than governments.” Perhaps the shift was related to the guilt many said Feeney felt over amassing his fortune, or his apparent loss of the Catholic faith bequeathed by his parents.
The same kind of leftward shift, alas, has appeared in other billionaire donors, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. What a sad irony that men who have helped free market economies bring prosperity not just to themselves but to so many others, who have benefited from businesses they helped flourish, now support radicals who would happily bring down the kind of America where business is respected and radicalism is not.
Feeney himself avoided introspection and simply declared, “Fortune doesn’t change a man, it only unmasks him. I guess under the mask is a kid from Elmora wearing a baseball cap.”
For further reading, consult the appreciation of Feeney by his friend and former colleague, Joanne Florino of the Philanthropy Roundtable, and his obituary at Forbes. The ugly story of how left-wing operatives at Atlantic Philanthropies were the biggest drivers in the passage of Obamacare is detailed in this report from Capital Research Center. Earlier stories on Feeney include a write-up in the Cornell magazine and a Forbes report.