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Meet the man who gives the most

Resource type: News

Australian Financial Review |

Few people outside of the philanthropic world know who he is, but Chuck Feeney gives more to Australia than any local business player – and he thinks this is wrong. It is difficult to tell James Packer, Rupert Murdoch, Frank Lowy and Richard Pratt that they aren’t giving away enough money. And lecturing is the last thing Chuck Feeney wants to do. Still, he’s got a message: giving away a vast amount of your wealth is far more satisfying then making billions of dollars in business. He would know. This wealthy American philanthropist has directed most of his own billions to worthy causes. And Australia hasn’t missed out, getting well in excess of $250 million for medical research – just a fraction of his global bequests over the past few decades. In an exclusive interview with the Weekend AFR, Feeney, who has shunned the media spotlight for years, says Australia’s three richest men, and Murdoch, are the country’s prospective philanthropic leaders. They just haven’t risen to the challenge. “Packer hasn’t yet decided to get into philanthropy,” Feeney says. “Murdoch is on record as saying that he thinks what he is doing is helping people by publishing newspapers. After that you’ve got the Lowys, who seem to be nibbling at philanthropy now. “Pratt is probably holding back from fear if he does anything now, people will regard it as some kind of mea culpa for his involvement in the cardboard cartel. “I just know people would get great satisfaction, and they’re capable of doing it. All the people we’ve mentioned there are smart and could achieve whatever they wanted in the business they’re in or in philanthropy, if they so decided.” Feeney doesn’t dispute that the wealthy Australians he singles out have made charitable donations. Lowy ranked fourth and Richard and Jeanne Pratt fifth on a list of the top philanthropists in 2005 compiled by BRW magazine, donating $15 million and $12 million – or 0.3 per cent and 0.2 per cent of their wealth – respectively. Kerry Packer ranked 13th with $6 million. His point is they haven’t donated a significant amount of their wealth – and this, he believes passionately, is what makes the real difference. A philanthropic champion encourages other people to give. And Australia doesn’t have a home-grown one. But we do have Feeney. The hard-working entrepreneur of working-class Irish-American roots co-founded a duty-free empire by being one step ahead of the tourism wave. Then secretly, at the age of 53, he gave his fortune away, establishing his foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies. In what was one of the biggest donations in history, Feeney irrevocably signed away an estimated $US500 million to $US800 million in assets – including his 38.75 per cent stake in Duty Free Shoppers. That was in 1984, well before Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were first lionised for their benevolence. According to his recently published biography, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, when that shareholding was sold to Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 1986, it delivered $US1.6 billion into the foundation’s coffers. Feeney left himself with a net wealth of less than $US5 million. His foundation has already donated about $US4 billion ($4.3 billion) worldwide and still holds another $US4 billion, which must be distributed in his lifetime. Just as likely to be carrying a plastic bag, Feeney has a man-next-door kind of nonchalance. He doesn’t wear expensive clothes, doesn’t own a home and always flies economy class. And if it wasn’t for the striking Steve McQueen blue eyes and broken-kneed gait of an ageing man, no one would look twice at him in the street. He has a habit of not meeting your gaze, unless to stress a point, and he avoids the media spotlight. Only now is the 76-year-old more publicly available, as he feels intimations of mortality. “One of the issues I’m trying to get across is this message of giving while living,” he says. “It’s easier to give money when you’re alive than when you’re dead.” Thus his delighted phone call to the Weekend AFR last month to ensure it hadn’t missed a local act of generosity. Lowy had turned the first sod at the site of a $100 million cancer research centre being built at the University of NSW, to which he will donate $10 million. However, it is Greg Poche, who sold his freight business Star Track Express for $750 million in 2003, for whom Feeney reserves his greatest praise. Poche was ranked as the No. 2 philanthropist after donating $32.5 million to help establish a world-class melanoma research unit in Sydney. Now this is a sum Feeney does rate. The way he sees it, the bigger the donation the more likely it will draw gifts of similar size – creating a snowball effect. It’s a tactic Feeney uses to get the biggest bang for his buck, and his foundation usually only selects beneficiaries that show they can match funds from other sources. It’s a thoughtful strategy, one where everything is optimally connected. From matching funds, to applying Australian medical breakthroughs in developing countries where Feeney is also a figurehead, it’s aimed at creating a virtuous circle of benefaction. Feeney’s tone is far from lecturing. His soft New Jersey cadence belies his passion. For a man prone to leaving sentences unfinished and who inexplicably wanders off mid-conversation (to retrieve an article from his hotel room to help explain a point, it turns out), it is the question about what drives him that elicits his most coherent response. “I just think that people who walk into a facility that they’re responsible for making happen have a different sort of satisfaction that you can’t match in the business world,” he says. “It is somewhat repetitive making money. If you’re good at it, you’re successful, and if you’re successful you’re happy – but is that all it’s about- I realised quickly that the satisfaction I got from so-called giving while living exceeded the satisfaction you got from business as usual.” The vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland, John Hay, who met Feeney a decade ago, identifies his funds leveraging model as his great legacy. First an organisation must “put its money where its mouth is” and match any donation itself, Hay explains. Hay’s university has leveraged Feeney’s gift to get matching funds from the state government. At times, the federal government has also pitched in, as have other smaller groups. “The sums of money Atlantic Philanthropies has provided us have been leveraged to the extent that our total amount from all sources is close to $700 million,” Hay says. “Really what he’s achieving, it seems to me, if it goes on, is the possibility of creating a cultural change in Australia.” Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake says another extraordinary thing about Feeney is the extent of his business and social networks. “He encourages universities and others who are supported by Atlantic to make connections with one another, where there are links in research themes, for example,” Coaldrake says. “I would hope that strong links do get forged over the years between those bodies.” Both note Feeney’s reluctance to draw attention to himself. “He does it all without a skerrick of vanity,” Hay says. “He’s not doing it for the kudos involved.” Just as the establishment of the foundation was kept secret for many years, so were Atlantic Philanthropies’ activities – the rationale being that others would be disinclined to make donations to causes that had already received a considerable sum. It also prevented unsolicited requests. As chairman of the foundation, Feeney influences the distribution of funds and spends much of his time travelling between the US, Ireland, Vietnam and Australia to do just that. He first came to Australia to visit his friend, the late tennis great Ken Fletcher, and grew to love Brisbane. In Australia, as elsewhere, he channels money into three other key areas: ageing, disadvantaged children and youth, and reconciliation and human rights. His advice to other philanthropists is to focus on a small number of areas or end up “chasing too many rabbits”. One attraction of Australia is its proximity to Asia. Much of his investment here funds research that helps developing countries, such as research in Queensland to help mitigate dengue fever in Vietnam. Feeney laughs when asked why, at his age, he doesn’t delegate the travelling to others. “I wish you’d asked me that at 4.30 this morning,” he laughs, alluding to his early rise to catch a red-eye flight from Brisbane to Sydney. “I’m a person who enjoys what I do. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.” “I guess part of it goes back to your upbringing. I had a good upbringing. My mother was a nurse, my sister was a nurse, my father was very active in community things. “And, you know, I think it’s kind of a pragmatic thing. Why would you do nothing if you had the opportunity to do good?” He pulls out the article he retrieved from his room and points out John Ruskin’s famous words: “There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.” Feeney lifts his gaze. “You either believe it or you don’t believe it,” he says.

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