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An Entrepreneur, Always

How Chuck Feeney applied his business instincts to the world of philanthropy.

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Laying the Foundation

Chuck Feeney was born in 1931 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His mother was a nurse, his father an insurance underwriter.

Chuck—who shoveled snow and sold Christmas cards door-to-door as a child to make money—was the first of his Irish American family to go to university.

Following a four-year stint as a radio operator for U.S. Air Force intelligence  in Japan, the GI Bill made it possible for him to attend Cornell University. There he was known as the “sandwich man” for selling bologna sandwiches to hungry classmates—two slices of bread, one piece of meat.

One such classmate was Robert Miller, with whom he co-founded Duty Free Shoppers (DFS) in 1960, the company that made both men billionaires. While being successful in business was satisfying to him, Feeney was uncomfortable with the trappings of great wealth.

Inspired by his mother’s charitable impulse and later by Andrew Carnegie’s essay, Wealth, which argued that the best use of one’s wealth was to help others, Feeney founded The Atlantic Foundation in 1982, the first of The Atlantic Philanthropies.

There was one catch, however: Feeney wanted Atlantic’s giving to be anonymous. “The desire for anonymity was a combination of Chuck’s humility and a desire to fly under the radar and be nimble,” says Christopher G. Oechsli, Atlantic’s president and CEO since 2011. “He wanted to meet people, talk, learn and act without attracting a lot of attention or recognition.”

Following his initial forays in giving and after taking into account his and his family’s personal needs, Feeney was determined to devote almost all of his wealth to philanthropy. In 1984, his DFS shares—then conservatively valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars—were irrevocably transferred to Atlantic. Yet, because of his insistence on anonymity for the first 15 years of Atlantic’s grantmaking, very few knew the source of the funding. Those who knew were sworn to secrecy.

While publicly silent about Atlantic’s work, he played an active role, traveling to the places where Atlantic’s grants were being made, visiting the people who were acting on and benefiting from them. As in his business enterprises, Feeney was always seeking promising investment opportunities in historically underappreciated and undervalued places (Limerick, Ireland; DaNang, Viet Nam; Queensland, Australia; the Western Cape in South Africa, among others) and finding leaders pursuing their passion for big change (like a new university or a cardiac unit).

I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t helping people.
- Chuck Feeney

Feeney’s choices of where and what to support were deeply personal and driven by where he saw opportunity.

In each of the eight regions where Atlantic has made major investments, Feeney either had a business or personal connection or was driven by a desire to make a difference within his lifetime. Wherever he or Atlantic made bets, they did so believing there was a promising opportunity to make something good happen.