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Spreading the wealth

Resource type: News

Sunday Business Post |

Chuck Feeney has given most of his vast fortune to charities while steering clear of the limelight. Irish people should follow his lead, writes Colin McCrea, who is a vice-president of his organisation. Unseen and unheard – and that’s just the way he wanted it – US philanthropist Charles F ‘Chuck’ Feeney has contributed to the transformation of Ireland’s higher education system over the past 17 years. In doing so, he has displayed tremendous generosity. But this generosity ties with Feeney’s belief in what he considers a more vital issue for our times: the importance of philanthropy to society, and his particular passion for ”giving while living” – making an impact on social ills or challenges in the short term while the wealthy are still with us, with little concern about the potential perpetuity of a charitable foundation. The spotlight shines a bit more brightly on Feeney this week as Conor O’Clery’s book, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune is launched at Trinity College Dublin tomorrow. Fittingly, the subject of the book will be absent. Feeney has spent years avoiding attention for himself, focusing it instead on the organisations his foundation gives his money to, not only in Ireland, but around the world. Feeney’s foundation, Atlantic, is delighted with the biography, as it also sets out Feeney’s philosophy, business and philanthropic activities, something he has always been reluctant to do. Atlantic provided no financial support for the book. Indeed, Feeney only acquiesced to working with O’Clery on the book because it would provide a platform for him and others to talk about philanthropy and ‘giving while living’ by the wealthy. Feeney is a remarkable and unremarkable man. Remarkable in his business acumen, his generosity and his vision. Unremarkable in that he is a man of absolutely no ego. He grew up in blue-collar New Jersey, and after stints in the US military and Cornell University, co-founded the first chain of duty-free shops, taking advantage of a growth in tourism in the Asia-Pacific region in the 1960s. Duty Free Shoppers became one of the largest retail chains in the world and in the 1980s had made Feeney extremely wealthy. Forbes magazine listed him as one of the top 25 richest Americans, unaware that he had in 1984 already irrevocably transferred all his fortune to his charitable trust, after providing for his family. The foundation operated in near total secrecy. The people who received grants had no idea where the money came from, and were told that if they found out, they were not to talk about it. Early on, Feeney’s particular interest was in higher education, but in 2003, the foundation decided to focus instead on bringing about lasting change to the disadvantaged in the eight countries in which it operates. It now has four programmes – ageing, disadvantaged children and youth, reconciliation and human rights, and population health. The first three of those programmes are active throughout the island of Ireland. To date, Atlantic has made donations worldwide of more than $4 billion. Of that, more than $1 billion has gone to the island of Ireland and $100 million is planned for Ireland this year. There remains approximately $4 billion left in the endowment, which will be committed during the next decade. After that, Atlantic will be gone. Unfortunately, there are few grant-making foundations in Ireland ready to fill the void when Atlantic leaves. However, the financial resources necessary to fill that void are certainly available. Statistics from the Bank of Ireland’s recent ‘The Wealth of the Nation’ report estimate that there are more than 30,000 millionaires in Ireland. More than 500 people are worth more than €500 million. And yet there are only 26 grant-making foundations here, compared to 8,800 in Britain. People who have the ability to make a lot of money could use those skills for the betterment of society by becoming involved in philanthropy. It is hoped the book will stimulate the growth of grant-making foundations by telling the story of a man who did it on a grand scale. Feeney agreed to forgo his previous reluctance to talk in an effort to serve as an example, but he also wanted to show the wealthy just how much enjoyment and fulfilment can come from seeing philanthropy in action. One factor that contributes to the dearth of Irish foundations is the uneasy relationship with self-promotion or attention – the ‘cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies’ syndrome. But Ireland needs more high-profile philanthropists to serve as an example to others. For all its successes and resources, the government cannot do it all. The private sector, uninhibited by the constraints government face, can take bolder steps, target resources more effectively and in some cases, do a better job of bringing about change. So what could be done? There are certain issues that should be at the forefront of any discussion about invigorating philanthropy in Ireland. The government and the private sector could play a bigger role in supporting philanthropy. There are two promising initiatives here, one being the government’s Forum on Philanthropy, an organisation that fosters discussion on how society might strengthen and widen the practice of philanthropy in Ireland. The other is Philanthropy Ireland, which works to foster its development and supports the role and practice of charitable trusts and foundations. Charitable foundations could also apply business skills and thinking as a means of increasing their effectiveness. Internationally, the most successful foundations have a strategic approach to determining what type of investment will do the most good for society. A word of encouragement to budding philanthropists: Atlantic has found a deep vein of opportunity in Ireland, because Ireland has many people with vision, drive and commitment. In order to be able to do their work, foundations need good people to give money to. These people are available in abundance in Ireland. Very few people have the ability to make Feeney-sized contributions to society. But that should not deter others. Ireland’s economic growth is creating riches and opportunities. Philanthropy can go a long way towards rectifying the imbalances that still exist in society. And philanthropists can derive a great deal of satisfaction and enjoyment in the process. The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune by Conor O’Clery will be published tomorrow by Public Affairs, price €23 Colin McCrea is senior vice-president of The Atlantic Philanthropies Sunday Business Post