Skip to main content

Secretive Philanthropist Breaks Long Silence

Resource type: News

The Chronicle of Philanthropy |

By Marty Michaels On an otherwise unremarkable day in November 1984, Charles F. (Chuck) Feeney arrived in Nassau, the Bahamas, as one of the wealthiest men in America, having quietly amassed a fortune based on a global empire of duty-free shops that sold liquor and luxury items. But when he boarded a flight back to New York that evening, Mr. Feeney was not nearly as wealthy, since he had just transferred the vast majority of his estate — estimated at between $500-million and $800-million — to his foundation. The exact figure is unclear, because the transaction, like all Mr. Feeney’s business and philanthropic dealings, was carried out in secret. Now, however, Mr. Feeney’s philosophies on life and philanthropy are emerging into public view, as told in The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, a new book by Conor O’Clery, a former foreign correspondent for The Irish Times. The title of the book, published by PublicAffairs, refers to the fact that Forbes magazine listed Mr. Feeney as the 23rd-richest American in 1988, without a clue that he had given away most of his wealth four years earlier. Mr. Feeney’s foundation, which would ultimately become known as the Atlantic Philanthropies, is based in Hamilton, Bermuda, which has both allowed for secrecy and helped shelter his assets from American taxes and scrutiny. (As Mr. O’Clery says, “Chuck Feeney is a libertarian when it comes to tax, and certainly when it comes to tax on his enterprises and his businesses.”) Trusted Advisers To help guide the intricacies of his giving over the years, Mr. Feeney, 76, has relied on the counsel of several close advisers, beginning with Harvey P. Dale, a professor of philanthropy and law at New York University School of Law, who remains on the fund’s board as founding president. Other leaders of the foundation have included John Healy, who took over from Mr. Dale in 2001, and Gara LaMarche, the former director of U.S. programs for the Open Society Institute, who succeeded Mr. Healy in April. It was during Mr. Healy’s tenure that Mr. Feeney decided to spend all of the foundation’s assets by 2020. And because of the investment gains the foundation has achieved, spending the entire endowment on time may take some doing. Despite its uptick in grant making, the foundation’s assets have not diminished appreciably since the end of 2004, when they totaled $4.2-billion: As of the end of 2006, they stood at $4.1-billion. “The investment vehicle Chuck Feeney set up,” says Mr. O’Clery, “is probably one of the most successful in history.” Mr. Feeney is very much a hands-on philanthropist, according to the book, one who likes to get out and “kick the tires,” seeking out and visiting beneficiaries of his generosity. While Cornell University, his alma mater, was an early beneficiary of his money (the university has received an estimated $600-million from Mr. Feeney), his foundation’s giving now encompasses other American institutions, as well as groups in Australia, Bermuda, Ireland, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Vietnam. Some locales hold both a strategic and a personal attraction for him: For example, he believes that his dollars go far in Vietnam, providing “the greatest bang for the buck,” but he also told Mr. O’Clery that he was appalled by the atrocities of the American war in Vietnam and feels a sense of restitution is in order. From 1998 to 2006, Atlantic Philanthropies provided $220-million for libraries, higher education, and public-health programs in the country. As described by Mr. O’Clery, Mr. Feeney is a product of his generation: He doesn’t splurge on himself, but wears sweaters until the elbows are threadbare, and flies economy class even on long-haul flights to Asia. And while he pays personal tax in the United States, he maintains a peripatetic way of life with his second wife, Helga, living in small rented apartments in Dublin, San Francisco, and elsewhere. Mr. Feeney is thrifty — an attribute honed as a practical business skill — but Mr. O’Clery says that he is generous with others. When he sold his share in the duty-free shops to Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 1996, Mr. Feeney set aside $26-million from the proceeds to be given to 2,400 long-term employees. Mr. Feeney has shared that spirit of giving both formally and informally with his five grown children, including his daughter Diane Feeney, a philanthropist in her own right who leads the French American Charitable Trust. She and her siblings on that organization’s board have decided to follow their father’s example, also pledging to spend all of the trust’s assets by 2020. In an interview, Mr. O’Clery spoke about Mr. Feeney’s life and philanthropic legacy: Why is secrecy so important to Mr. Feeney? His secrecy was grounded in his desire to not “blow his own horn,” an expression he likes to use. And that is grounded in his continuing, lifelong identification with the community he came from — Elizabeth, N.J. — a tight-knit Irish-American community of people who helped each other, who enjoyed wit and a certain lifestyle of reunions and so forth. Chuck Feeney didn’t want to use his wealth to separate himself from that community. Secrecy has marked almost every aspect and phase of his life. When he was in the service in Korea, he was involved in intelligence. When he began to sell duty-free goods to the American sailors in the fleet in the Mediterranean, having intelligence about where the ships were — before his competitors did — was essential to his business. Was there a watershed moment that led to Mr. Feeney’s decision to give virtually all his assets to charity? I’ve pressed him on this, and he’s told me there was no “going over the cliff” moment. He became uncomfortable with money in the 1970s, when he was becoming very wealthy, and he didn’t like the company of the rich set that he and his wife began to socialize with in the south of France. He began to give his money away in a rather piecemeal fashion, not structured at all, as an individual, beginning with Cornell, with which he has a very special affinity. But he began to think seriously about what he should do with this wealth and he was guided by conversations with Harvey Dale , his lawyer, who had become his confidante and, in many ways, his consigliere in business and in personal matters. And Harvey remembers telling him the words of the Rev. Frederick Gates to John D. Rockefeller Sr. — which is that your fortune is rolling up like an avalanche and will crush you and your children and your children’s children — and Chuck began to worry about the effect of wealth on his children and he desperately did not want them to become children with a sense of entitlement. He mulled over it a long time, and when he did give it away, it was a unique act in the world of philanthropy: that someone on the cusp of becoming a billionaire would give away everything to his foundation, in its totality and all at once, irrevocably and at middle age. You write that Mr. Feeney often “found the countries, the institutions, and the people to support.” The key to Chuck Feeney is that he became a citizen of the world through his businesses, and he didn’t really have any home in any country for most of his life — and still doesn’t. When he devoted his energies to philanthropy, he had a good idea of other cultures and the needs of other countries, so he was able to identify other people’s needs quite quickly. So he could go to a university campus and quickly grasp two things: whether the president had vision and whether the university could make good use of his funds. One of the things that impressed me most about Chuck Feeney was his respect for his beneficiaries. He would go to a hospital in Da Nang, Vietnam, and he would speak to the directors there; he would never summon them to him, to his hotel. How have Mr. Feeney’s views about anonymous giving changed over the years? There has been a rethink at Atlantic Philanthropies, among Chuck and Harvey Dale and other members of the board. It’s been said that “[they] became synonymous with anonymous, and were getting credit for every anonymous grant,” and it was just too big. The “secret” was becoming too well known. But a certain degree of anonymity continues to this day, at least as far Chuck is concerned, to the extent that his name does not appear on any project, any building. For example, Queens University, in Belfast, is building a new library. It’s going to cost £44-million. It’s going to be called the Sir Anthony O’Reilly Library, because he provided £4-million of that cost, for naming rights. Chuck Feeney anonymously provided £10-million. And it was his wish that it should not be announced. So he’s still insisting that he get no public credit for his philanthropy. How did the decision to spend all of the foundation’s assets by 2020 come about? The debate went on for a long time. But John Healy says Chuck was the very last to sign off on the idea, because as an entrepreneur he prized flexibility above all. But when he did, he became its most enthusiastic advocate because this was the logical outcome of his thinking, that wealth should be used now to tackle the problems of this generation. Did the issue of preserving “donor intent” affect Mr. Feeney’s decision? Yes, very much. That was an important element in the debate he had with Harvey Dale and others about whether they should wind up the foundation. They feel very keenly that they want the money to go to the purposes they’ve identified as their priorities. Why did Mr. Feeney agree to tell his story publicly now? His idea was to show through his life story how a person can apply the energy that helped to make money to giving it away for good purposes. So really the book is the starting point, because no one has known enough about him yet to be inspired by him. He feels very strongly that there are lots of very wealthy people who still haven’t found what he calls the “pleasure of giving.” How did Mr. Feeney react to your idea for the book? When I was talking to him about doing this book, I could never get an answer out of him. We’d meet for lunch occasionally, and he said it would be a very difficult decision. And I said, Look, why don’t I put something in writing and fax it to you? So I faxed him a proposal, which essentially was that I would take no money from him or his foundation and I’d find my own agent and publisher, but he would have to let me travel with him, give me access, and also release all his beneficiaries and family from any remaining vows of secrecy. After a couple of months, he rang me up and invited me for lunch at P.J. Clarke. And he never mentioned the proposal over lunch, never mentioned that he’d received the fax, nothing. As far as I was concerned, I’d done everything I could do. I’d decided that I wasn’t going to press him for a decision. But as we walked out of the restaurant, he was going one way up Third Avenue and I was going the other way, and I said, “Do you want some more time to think about that other thing [the book]?” And he said, “No, let’s do it.” And he turned and walked away.

Related Resources


The Billionaire Who Wasn't