In 1982, a wealthy businessman quietly set up a philanthropic foundation. His goal was to secretly give away his entire fortune. Now, 38 years later, he has achieved his goal at the age of 89.
Chuck Feeney made his money in the duty-free shopping business, building a nestegg of $8 billion over the course of his life.
The Irish-American is known for his frugality and humility. Despite his riches, he does not own a car. He rents a small apartment, he flies economy class, and he owns only one pair of shoes.
The co-founder of the Duty-Free Shoppers Group managed to keep his charitable activities hidden from the public for 15 years, until his identity was revealed to the public in 1997 when he sold his shares in the company.
He continued to keep a low profile until 2005, when the opportunity came along to do some good with the publicity.
The New Jersey-born businessman decided to cooperate in journalist Conor O’Cleary’s writing of his biography, with an eye toward promoting ‘giving while living’ to other wealthy people. In 2007, former Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern launched the book at Trinity College Dublin.
This week, Feeney’s foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, finally ran out of money.
The elderly businessman told the Guardian that he was very happy with “completing this on my watch.” He urged other super-rich folks not to wait until after they have passed away to experience the joy of giving away their fortunes.
In explaining what motivated his generosity, the duty-free shopping mogul said “Wealth brings responsibility. People must define themselves, or feel a responsibility to use some of their assets to improve the lives of their fellow humans, or else create intractable problems for future generations.”
Feeney has donated $3.7 billion to higher education institutions, including close to $1 billion to Cornell University alone, where he studied for free under the GI Bill after serving in the Air Force during the Korean War.
He has also donated $870 million to various human rights groups, and $1.9 billion to fund various projects in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where he helped found the University of Limerick.
Feeney’s grandparents came to America from County Fermanagh in the North.
In addition to its direct financial impact, the businessman’s charitable actions inspired Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to establish the “Giving Pledge” for the world’s richest people.
Those who take the pledge commit to giving at least half of their fortune away to charity.
Expressing his admiration for what his friend has accomplished in his life, Buffett said that Feeney is “my hero and Bill Gates’ hero—he should be everybody’s hero.”