Atlantic Philanthropies

About AtlanticHistory and Founder

Charles Feeney

"I believe strongly in ‘giving while living.’  I see little reason to delay giving when so much good can be achieved through supporting worthwhile causes today."  – Chuck Feeney, July 2012.

Our Founder, Charles “Chuck” Feeney, was born during the Great Depression and came from a modest background of blue collar Irish-American parents who worked hard to make a good life for their family in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His ancestry traces to County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.

Early Entrepreneurship

Mr. Feeney was an entrepreneur from an early age and was always thinking of new money-making schemes, including selling Christmas cards door-to-door and teaming with a friend to shovel sidewalks during snowstorms.

He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1948 and after his service took advantage of a GI Bill scholarship to earn a bachelor’s degree from the prestigious Cornell University—becoming the first member of his family to attend college. Since the early 1980s, Cornell has received many Atlantic grants, allowing the university to launch its Life Sciences Initiative, the Tri-Institutional Research Program, the new Cornell NYC Tech campus, the Hotel School expansion, transform the North and West campuses, and establish the Cornell Tradition Program, enabling students like him to attend the university on scholarship while working and doing community service.   

After graduating, Mr. Feeney made his way around Europe and eventually co-founded a duty-free business selling cigarettes, alcohol and luxury goods to tourists.  The business, Duty Free Shoppers (DFS), became the world’s largest luxury goods retailer.

An inveterate traveler, Mr. Feeney continually expanded the business into new ventures, most of which became hugely successful.  He often relied on his instincts in making business decisions and reveled in taking risks. Mr. Feeney was attracted to the underdog, often reaching out to help people who were struggling.  

Founding Atlantic

In 1982, Mr. Feeney established The Atlantic Foundation, the first and by far the largest of The Atlantic Philanthropies.  In 1984, Atlantic received all of the Feeney interests in Duty Free Shoppers and operated anonymously for its first 15 years. Atlantic has made grants totalling more than $6.3 billion as of December 2012. He served on the Atlantic Board for 30 years and continues to work closely with the foundation’s leaders.

Accelerating Research, Health Care and Higher Education

Mr. Feeney has been as visionary a philanthropist as a businessman. Grants from the Founding Chairman’s Programme have helped to better the lives of people in a variety of countries. 

Starting in the 1980s, he was the catalyst for Atlantic’s major contributions to rebuild the university infrastructure in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. In addition, Mr. Feeney envisioned creating a knowledge economy to provide modern skills for better jobs, so Atlantic convinced the Irish Government to co-fund a now highly successful research initiative – the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions. In Viet Nam, Mr. Feeney championed strengthening the health care infrastructure and public health system that had been ravaged by the longstanding war.

The Founding Chairman Programme also helped to develop state-of-the-art facilities for biomedical research in four states in Australia; establish a world-class life-sciences building at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa; and greatly expand biomedical education and research in cardiovascular disease, cancer research and medicine, and women’s and children’s health at the University of California, San Francisco. He encourages collaborations among Atlantic-supported institutions, believing that working together will result in greater discoveries in a shorter timeframe.

Giving While Living

Mr. Feeney strongly believes in and promotes the Giving While Living philosophy. In an effort to raise the level of philanthropy in Australia and simultaneously enhance the sustainability of the 25 biomedical facilities where the foundation has provided major grants, Atlantic supported two Giving While Living networks in Tasmania and New South Wales.

While he already had transferred virtually all of his and his family’s asset over 25 years earlier, he became a signatory of the Giving Pledge in February 2011, in an effort to inspire the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to the philanthropic causes and charitable organisations of their choice either during their lifetime or after their death. 

Today, Mr. Feeney owns neither a home nor a car. He still travels —often in economy class—and is well known for wearing a $15 watch.

Three times in 2012, Mr. Feeney was recognised for his tremendous contributions to education, health care, science and philanthropy. In an unprecedented event in early September, all the universities of Ireland, North and South, jointly conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Laws on him. He also received, in its inaugural year, the Republic of Ireland’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award for Irish Abroad given to people who have made tremendous contributions to the country. And the University of California, San Francisco gave Mr. Feeney its most prestigious campus award, the UCSF Medal, which acknowledges outstanding personal contributions to the university’s health science mission. He received the Operation Smile Impact Award in 2013, was inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame in 2011, and received the 2010 Cornell Icon of Industry Award. In 1997, Time Magazine said: “Feeney's beneficence already ranks among the grandest of any living American….”

In his biography, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, Mr. Feeney said, “I had one idea that never changed in my mind—that you should use your wealth to help people.”

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Atlantic Reports

Giving While Living Report Turning Passion Into Action: Giving While Living

This publication explores the practice of Giving While Living as exemplified by our Founder Chuck Feeney.


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