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Big Questions

Why Were You Anonymous? Why Did You Go Public?

Atlantic founder Chuck Feeney, a modest man who shunned the spotlight, chose to keep his foundation’s operations anonymous in its early days. He wanted to be able to meet people, talk, learn and act without attracting attention or recognition.

Atlantic maintained complete anonymity until 1997. The decision to “go public” that year resulted from litigation arising from the sale of Atlantic’s interest in Duty Free Shoppers, the company Feeney co-founded and the source of the wealth used to establish the foundation. The New York Times broke the news in an article headlined, “He Gave Away $600 Million, and No One Knew,” revealing how Feeney had started Atlantic in 1982.

Even though the world first began hearing about Atlantic in the late 1990s, the foundation continued to avoid the spotlight. Grantees still were prohibited from identifying Atlantic as the source of funding until a change in policy in 2001. In 2002, when Feeney and the Atlantic board decided that the foundation would conclude all grantmaking in 2016 and cease operations in 2020, they also decided the foundation needed to be more transparent and promote collaboration among grantees and other stakeholders over the course of its final years.

Several years later, the publicity-shy Feeney agreed to let his life story be told in “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t.” Published in 2007, journalist Conor O’Clery’s book is a detailed account of Feeney’s family history, his business career and motivation for founding Atlantic. Feeney took advantage of the book’s publication to spread the message of Giving While Living. Taking a line from the Irish adage that “there are no pockets in a shroud,” Feeney encapsulated a philosophy for future philanthropists: “It’s a lot more fun giving while you’re living than when you’re dead.”

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