Warren Buffett Honors His Hero, the Billionaire Who Secretly Gave It All Away
Resource type: News
Warren Buffett and Bill Gates share a common hero, the under-the-radar philanthropist Chuck Feeney.
By Dan Alexander
Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are the two most iconic philanthropists in the world, having given away tens of billions to much fanfare. But their role model is Chuck Feeney, a former billionaire who gave away his entire fortune almost completely unnoticed.
“Chuck has set an example,” Buffett said Tuesday while presenting Feeney with the Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Philanthropy. “It’s a real honor to talk about a fellow who is my hero and Bill Gates’ hero. He should be everybody’s hero.”
Feeney cofounded Duty Free Shoppers and made a fortune selling cigarettes, booze and bags to travelers. In 1984, he secretly transferred his 38.75% ownership of Duty Free to what became the Atlantic Philanthropies, his foundation. By the time Atlantic Philanthropies shuts down in 2016, it will have given away $7.5 billion to promote education, human rights, science and healthcare around the world. No one has ever given away the entirety of such a large fortune while they were still alive.
Feeney’s longtime business partner Steven Denning made remarks on his behalf, taking the stage to a standing ovation in a dining room of about 150 billionaires, national leaders and top social entrepreneurs at the Third Annual Forbes Philanthropy Summit. “I never found another individual like Chuck Feeney,” Denning said. “(Feeney) said, with his typical wry humor, ‘When giving while dead, you don’t feel anything.’”
WATCH: Chuck Feeney, Recipient Of The Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award For Philanthropy
Feeney’s giving empowered others who also had plans to change the world, some of whom were in attendance. Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp was a 21-year-old straight out of college when she bumped into a representative of Atlantic Philanthropies at a conference and told him about her fledgling organization. Atlantic Philanthropies wrote her a check and shortly thereafter, Echoing Green, the charitable arm of Feeney’s growth equity firm, came through with another donation.
“Those two philanthropies at critical, critical ventures kept Teach for America afloat,” Kopp said, while accepting her own award, the Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Social Entrepreneurship. “I’m not sure I would be standing here if it weren’t for Echoing Green and Atlantic Philanthropies.”
Teach for America sends 11,000 fresh college grads into the most challenging school districts in the country to teach for two years. The majority of its alums stay in education, and many of them are principals and superintendents around the country today.
Kopp is now taking the Teach for America formula and replicating it all around the world through Teach for All. She founded the organization in 2007 and is now working in over 30 different countries through groups like Teach for China, Enseña Perú and Teach for Pakistan.
“The same hearts and minds and souls that were drawn to this work in the United States are drawn to this work all over the world,” Kopp said. “With a little luck, this lifetime achievement award is only coming at the beginning of a journey.”
WATCH: Wendy Kopp Receives Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award For Social Entrepreneurship
The summit began Tuesday morning with the story of Pakistan’s most famous student, Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old activist who was shot in the head two years ago by Taliban militants afraid of her campaign for girls’ education.
Now studying in Great Britain, she missed her first day of school all year to come to New York and ask a room full of billionaires like Buffett, Paul Tudor Jones, Stephen Schwarzman, Michael Milken and Jeff Skoll to support her new charity, the Malala Fund, which will fight for girls’ education all over the world.
In afternoon breakout sessions, some of the smartest business minds on the planet helped the biggest disruptors in education think about how to advance their organizations. Malala asked for advice on how to expand her fund so it has the largest impact for girls in the most challenging places. Sal Khan asked how to give access to his Khan Academy to everyone in the world. And Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, asked how to take his high-performing charter school model and spread it nationally.
“The world is so full of people who have less than they need,” Feeney told the audience through a video. “Each time you can address their problem, you help them to move forward and think that life can change, and I can change it.”
WATCH: Chuck Feeney on Giving While Living
For more on Feeney’s clandestine mission to go broke, read my colleague Steve Bertoni’s magazine story.