'James Bond of philanthropy': Billionaire Chuck Feeney gives away the last of his fortune

Irish-American businessman and former billionaire Chuck Feeney is now worth US$2 million.
UCSF/YouTube

Irish-American businessman and former billionaire Chuck Feeney is now worth US$2 million.

Nearly five years ago, Irish-American billionaire Charles F "Chuck" Feeney promised that by the end of 2016, he was going to hand out the last his fortune.

It was a race: Feeney was then 81, and Atlantic Philanthropies, a collection of private foundations he had started and funded, still had about US$1.5 billion left.

Flinging money out the window or writing checks willy-nilly was not Feeney's way.

Over his lifetime, Chuck Feeney (pictured here in 2003) has given away about US$8 billion, mostly in secret, to help ...
Crispin Rodwell

Over his lifetime, Chuck Feeney (pictured here in 2003) has given away about US$8 billion, mostly in secret, to help fund hospitals, universities and other groups.

But in December, Feeney and Atlantic completed the sprint and made a final grant, US$7 million to Cornell University, to support students doing community service work. 

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He had officially emptied his pockets, meeting his aspiration of "giving while living". Altogether, he had contributed US$8 billion to his philanthropies, which have supported higher education, public health, human rights and scientific research.

Chuck Feeney (middle) was conferred an honorary Doctorate of Laws by nine Irish universities in 2012.
University of Limerick

Chuck Feeney (middle) was conferred an honorary Doctorate of Laws by nine Irish universities in 2012.

"You're always nervous handling so much money, but we seem to have worked it pretty well," Feeney, now 85, said last week in a phone interview.

His remaining personal net worth is slightly more than US$2 million. That's not quite broke, by any standard, but it is a modest amount for a man who controlled thousands of times as much wealth. He and his wife, Helga, now live in a rented apartment in San Francisco.

"You can only wear one pair of pants at a time," Feeney has said.

Until he was 75, he travelled only in coach, and carried reading materials in a plastic bag. For many years, when in New York, he had lunch not at the city's luxury restaurants, but in the homey confines of Tommy Makem's Irish Pavilion on East 57th Street, where he ate the burgers.

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None of the major US philanthropists have given away a greater proportion of their wealth, and starting in 1982, Feeney did most of this in complete secrecy, leading Forbes Magazine to call him the "James Bond of philanthropy".

His name does not appear in gilded letters, chiselled marble or other forms of writing anywhere on the 1,000 buildings across five continents that US$2.7 billion of his money paid for. For years, Atlantic's support came with a requirement that the beneficiaries not publicise its involvement.

Beyond Feeney's reticence about blowing his own horn, "it was also a way to leverage more donations – some other individual might contribute to get the naming rights", said Christopher Oechsli, the president and chief executive officer of Atlantic.

During the early 1990s, Feeney met secretly with paramilitary forces in Belfast, Northern Ireland, urging them to drop armed guerrilla conflict and promising financial support if they embraced electoral politics.

Atlantic grants paid to create a public health system in Vietnam, and to provide access to antiretroviral treatment for AIDS in southern Africa. The last rounds of grants, about US$600 million, included support for Atlantic Fellows, described as young emerging leaders working in their countries for healthier, more equitable societies.

One of Atlantic's projects was to propose reforms to the US healthcare system, which helped lay groundwork for the Affordable Care Act; another was advocacy for the end of the death penalty for juveniles. 

Raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Feeney served as a radio operator in the Air Force and attended Cornell University on the GI Bill. In 1960, he and a partner set up a company that sold items like brandy and cigars to travellers in duty-free shops at airports. It became a booming success. Feeney has also been a shrewd investor in technology startups.

In 1984, he secretly transferred all his assets, including his 38.8-per-cent ownership of the duty-free business, to Atlantic Philanthropies. He grew the Atlantic pot with shrewd, early investments in companies like Facebook, Priceline, E-Trade, Alibaba and Legent.

While Feeney has made an effort for years to stay off the media radar and lists such as the Forbes 400, a business dispute in 1997 forced disclosure of Feeney's funding for Atlantic.

 - Sydney Morning Herald

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