The Billionaire Who Wasn’t24 September 2007
Today in New York, the worlds of publishing and philanthropy mark an unusual event:the launch of a biography of Atlantic’s founder, Charles F. Feeney. It’s unusual because Chuck Feeney has spent his whole life avoiding the spotlight, even going to the lengths of originally setting up his foundation anonymously, so none of the beneficiaries would know where the grant came from.
The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, written by the celebrated Irish journalist Conor O’ Clery and published by Public Affairs, tells the story of a man from a working class family in Elizabeth, New Jersey, who attended Cornell University on the G.I. Bill after four years in the Air Force in Japan. With a knack for making money that started with selling Christmas cards door-to-door as a ten-year old, Chuck Feeney and his partners founded Duty Free Shoppers, the largest duty-free retail chain in the world. By 1988 the Forbes 400 listed him as the 23rd richest American.
But he wasn’t. By the time he mistakenly appeared on the coveted list, Feeney had quietly transferred the bulk of his vast wealth to a charitable foundation – the origins of The Atlantic Philanthropies – and his net worth was only a few million dollars. Living modestly ever since in rented apartments, owning no car, flying economy, sporting a five-dollar watch, and toting his things around in a shopping bag, Chuck Feeney is not your average billionaire. Or former one, that is. Atlantic over the years has moved into the open, striving to be as transparent as any of our colleague institutions, but Chuck Feeney has remained behind the scenes, rarely giving interviews and never accepting honors or recognition.
So why did he permit Conor O’Clery to tell the story of his remarkable life? It’s because Chuck Feeney believes strongly in a philosophy he calls “giving while living.” O’ Clery quotes a rare note from Feeney to the Atlantic Trustees when the foundation’s future was being discussed: “I believe that people of substantial wealth potentially create problems for future generations unless they themselves accept responsibility to use their wealth during their lifetime to help worthwhile causes.”
Virtually all of the countries in which Atlantic works have deep social challenges and at the same time many leverage points for change. Those challenges that are addressed now, like opportunities for youth or access to treatment for those with HIV, are much less likely to become larger, more entrenched and more expensive challenges down the line.
The Billionaire Who Wasn’t is full of great stories that illuminate the man whose generosity made possible one of the world’s largest foundations. A commitment to philanthropy was bred in the young Chuck’s household. We learn that his father, Leo, was a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organisation that gave financial aid to members and their families in need. His mother, Madaline, was a nurse who did constant favors for neighbors without anyone knowing. Feeney’s penchant for secrecy may have come in part, his sister Arlene speculates, from his years as a code breaker with an arm of the National Security Agency, where he wasn’t allowed to disclose what he was doing.
We learn that Chuck Feeney’s approach to philanthropy relies on common sense and intuition, particularly when it comes to leadership and performance. Take Viet Nam, a country that Feeney believes has gotten a “bad deal.” Ten years ago, waiting for a flight in San Francisco airport, he read a San Francisco Chronicle story about a small humanitarian organisation, East Meets West, that was helping Viet Nam’s poor to promote self-sufficiency by building schools and providing safe drinking water. Feeney arranged to meet the organisation’s director, offered a grant of $100,000 and said “see what you can do with that.” He visited Viet Nam for the first of many times the next year, and tens of millions of dollars later, East Meets West is a key Atlantic partner in rebuilding the country’s health infrastructure.
In Limerick, Ireland, Feeney found a man with a plan in Ed Walsh, who was in Dublin petitioning for full university status for the Limerick Institute of Higher Education. “I could see very quickly they could absorb an awful lot of money,” Feeney told O’Clery. “ The university was on a magnificent site, but buildings were in rough condition. I recognised here was a school on the uptake and a charismatic leader. You need both things to support an organisation.” And as with Viet Nam, Feeney with Limerick and other higher education grants was attracted to potential waiting to be liberated by resources – votes of confidence that in turn attracted substantial support from government and other donors.
We also learn in the book that there is no substitute in Feeney’s world for tangible, hands-on knowledge. The retailer who dropped in on Duty Free Shops to make sure the goods on the shelves were compellingly arranged became the philanthropist who checked out elevator suppliers for hospitals in Viet Nam, and walked the fields around Limerick’s campus to suggest possibilities for expansion.
This entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy was modeled by the staff Feeney attracted to Atlantic. Ray Handlan, a former Cornell official who came on in 1982 as Atlantic’s first President, approached City Year founder Michael Brown after hearing him give a speech, and ended up assisting the fledgling organization to expand to 14 cities. City Year became the model for President Clinton’s AmeriCorps program. To this day, in whatever ways Atlantic has grown, we strive to continue that entrepreneurial tradition and honor the belief that philanthropy is best not when it steers the grantees’ ship, but helps put the wind in their sails.
Coincidentally, the Forbes 400 for 2007 has just been published, and for the first time you need more than a billion dollars to get on it. The New York Times wrote a few months ago of the swelling ranks of the super-rich with a seemingly insatiable taste for luxury – a new gilded age. And in Ireland, where Chuck’s generosity has had a huge impact on society, The Irish Times noted last week: “Seven years ago there were fewer than 10,000 millionaires, today there are more than 33,000. And over the past 10 years household wealth has increased by some 350 per cent. Ireland, once a seriously poor country, has become a seriously rich society.”
In the face of these figures, Chuck Feeney is an important role model, even though few will choose to follow his Franciscan approach to philanthropy. As Fintan O’Toole wrote in his Irish Times column, O’Clery’s biography is “an epic tale that would make a great movie if its morale did not counteract so powerfully the grand narrative of our money-grubbing times… he does full justice to Feeney's own realisation that wealth, even when you make it from flogging booze and smokes at airports, is not duty-free.”