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From Anonymity to Philanthropic Role Model

Chuck Feeney’s message: Give big now. Don’t wait until you’re old or, even worse, dead.

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1996 - 2016
Going Big

Identity revealed, Chuck Feeney and Atlantic's Board decided to make Atlantic a limited life foundation, and focus on getting others with wealth to consider Giving While Living, too.

After 1996, when Feeney sold his DFS stake to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), the foundation suddenly grew exponentially. A disagreement with DFS partners about the LVMH deal was heading to court, which meant Feeney’s philanthropic secret would soon be revealed. In a preemptive strike, he called The New York Times and on January 23, 1997, the Times ran a story entitled “He Gave Away $600 Million and No One Knew.” That changed Atlantic forever.

A more formal grantmaking strategy was established, with five program themes—aging, children and youth, population health, reconciliation and human rights, and a fund for Founding Chair initiatives. In 2002, the foundation announced it would be a limited life organization and would complete grantmaking by 2016, and close by 2020.

Feeney also decided that since his secret was finally out, he would actively promote the Giving While Living philosophy. He said,

“Any money that people give to good causes—as long as it’s well-managed—is worthwhile.”

Among those inspired by Feeney’s generosity were Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who cite him as inspiration for the Giving Pledge. Said Gates, “Chuck’s longstanding commitment to Giving While Living has been a guidepost for Melinda and me. Chuck has been a beacon to us for many years; he was living the Giving Pledge long before we launched it.”

Although he had already given it all away to Atlantic to be deployed during his lifetime, Feeney became the 59th billionaire to sign The Giving Pledge and also urged others to do the same. In his 2011 acceptance letter he wrote,

“I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living – to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition.”

Having shunned all public recognition for his and Atlantic’s philanthropy until late in life, Feeney received several prestigious awards, including the first and only honorary doctorate degree from all nine universities on the island of Ireland in 2012.

Coming from a modest background and having been able to pursue a university education through only the help of others—in his case via the GI Bill, Feeney always believed that education is an essential accelerator for individuals and societies.

Cornell University received the very first Atlantic grant—for $7 million in 1982 for the Cornell Tradition, which provides financial aid to students. Cornell also received the largest grant for $350 million in 2011, to build a cutting-edge tech campus on New York’s Roosevelt Island, which is in keeping with Feeney’s bold style of “big impact” philanthropy.

Feeney took a similar approach across Ireland, where he persuaded government leaders to co-invest with Atlantic in programs to create world class research institutions that helped spur economic growth in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. He didn’t stop there. Over the years, Feeney also initiated investments in universities and research in Australia, the United States and Vietnam to make life-saving advances in health and deliver quality care.

“When it comes down to it, it’s always people.”

“Use your wealth to help people. Use your wealth to create institutions to help people,” Chuck once said, summarizing his philanthropic motivation. “When it comes down to it, it’s always people.”

In that spirit, The Atlantic Philanthropies established the Atlantic Fellows® in 2015 to culminate the foundation’s long history of investing in people and in their vision, opportunity and ability to realize a better—fairer, healthier, more inclusive—world. Atlantic committed over $700 million—its biggest investment to support the work of a global network of thousands of Atlantic Fellows over the next two decades, and beyond.

If you want to give it away, think about giving now. It's a lot more fun than when you're dead.
- Chuck Feeney

Feeney was 51 when he founded Atlantic. He often said that he is glad that he started his philanthropic journey early.

Feeney lauded the new young philanthropists who have typically made their fortunes in technology for starting to give when they're young. “It’s a lot of work to start a giving program,” he explained. “It doesn’t happen overnight. If you want to give it away, think about giving it away while you are alive because you’ll get a lot more satisfaction than if you wait until you are dead. Besides, it is a lot more fun.”