At one time, Chuck Feeney would have done everything in his power to keep his name out of this article—and off this site. He was so completely committed to his brand of covert philanthropy that beneficiaries were warned that his gifts would be snatched back if they revealed the source; funds were conveyed so clandestinely that some university dons fretted they’d be suspected of receiving laundered money. Yet his contributions were so large that when, inevitably, word of his magnanimity began to leak out, many in the philanthropic community automatically assumed that every “anonymous donor” was Chuck Feeney.
And, in many cases, they were right. Although the ranks of anonymous donors are, by definition, unnumbered, Feeney has surely been among the most generous. Over the past 30 years, he has given billions of dollars through his foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, to a wide range of causes, starting with his alma mater, Cornell University, spreading to the entire university system in Ireland—and to the peace process in Northern Ireland—and more recently encompassing large-scale projects in education, science, health care, and other areas in Vietnam, South Africa, and Australia as well as the United States. In 1997, when a business transaction finally outed him, Time declared, “Feeney’s beneficence already ranks among the grandest of any living American.”
But in the past 17 years, having been forced to shed his cloak of invisibility, Feeney has become an eloquent—if still low-key—spokesman for philanthropy, and specifically for “giving while living.” In 2011 he signed the Giving Pledge launched by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to encourage initially only the wealthiest Americans to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to good works either during their lifetime or after their death. (Feeney chose the first option, and Atlantic Philanthropies is slated to spend down its assets and go out of business by 2016.) He has allowed the press to tag along on his visits to donees; expounded on his views in a one-hour documentary about himself; cooperated in a biography, “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t,” by Irish journalist Conor O’Clery; and accepted honorary degrees and other recognition, including induction into the Irish American Hall of Fame. He has even released previous beneficiaries from their vow of silence. “The idea of anonymous giving was good, but eventually we became synonymous with anonymous,” Feeney told O’Clery. “It became evident we were kidding ourselves.”
All this amounts to a transformation for a man whom Forbes once called “the James Bond of philanthropy.” In his biography, however, Feeney notes one constant: “I had one idea that never changed in my mind—that you should use your wealth to help people.”
Although he is a modest celebrity today, at least in philanthropic circles, Feeney is unchanged in other respects, too. He remains a deeply private person, spurning the displays of wealth he could easily afford in favor of a simpler life that includes off-the-rack suits, $15 watches, and economy-class plane tickets to visit Atlantic beneficiaries. While he thrives on competition, money, for him, is just a means of keeping score. Growing up in blue-collar New Jersey, Feeney won a scholarship to the Cornell School of Hotel Management and then—through a combination of luck, street smarts, and sheer hubris—embarked on a business selling cars, perfume, and liquor to U.S. servicemen and tourists in Europe. That experience led to the founding of Duty Free Shoppers (DFS), a chain of airport shops that, capitalizing on a surge in international tourism, were an almost immediate success. But because DFS was privately owned by Feeney and three partners, it satisfied his penchant for secrecy. One reason Feeney was able to fly under the radar for so long was that the source of his fortune—as well as its uses—went undisclosed for years. In 1984, he transferred his sizable DFS stake to Atlantic. It wasn’t until he sold Atlantic’s DFS shares to a publicly-traded company in 1997 that Feeney’s cover was blown—and, with that, his curious identity as the world’s leading anonymous donor.
Those who know Feeney—and many more who don’t—have struggled to explain his obsession with secrecy, particularly when it comes to giving. Feeney likes to recount the story about his mother, a nurse, who used to jump into her car to pick up a disabled neighbor as he struggled to walk to the bus stop, insisting that she was going his way. Some family members have suggested that he became used to operating covertly in his intelligence work during the Korean War, a pattern reinforced when he was growing DFS without stirring up the competition. Still others point out that Feeney insisted on a low profile when he and his family—which ultimately included five children—lived in Europe during the 1970s, a time when criminal and political gangs over the border in Italy frequently kidnapped wealthy children for ransom. Feeney has also said that he did not want to be besieged by requests for donations, or to discourage other contributors from giving to a worthy cause.
Then there’s the critical role played by Harvey Dale, a Harvard Law professor and founding president of Atlantic Philanthropies, whom Feeney has described as the most influential person in his life. It was Dale who introduced Feeney to the writings of Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher who said that it was best if the giver and receiver didn’t know each other, and Dale who pointed out that anonymous giving was favored in both the Sermon on the Mount and the Koran. Dale also urged Andrew Carnegie’s essay, “Wealth,” on Feeney, who has distributed copies to family and friends. Although Feeney resisted Carnegie’s lavish lifestyle, he responded to the steel magnate’s view that the rich had an obligation to use their assets responsibly to help others.
Feeney will be 85 when Atlantic Philanthropies allocates its last grants in 2016. At that time, he can probably—and gratefully—embrace a less visible lifestyle. But his name is inscribed among the world’s great philanthropists. He is Anonymous Donor no more.
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