Chuck Feeney has achieved his lifetime ambition: giving away his $8bn (£6bn) fortune while he is still around to see the impact it has made.
For the past 38 years, Feeney, an Irish American who made billions from a duty-free shopping empire, has been making endowments to charities and universities across the world with the goal of “striving for zero … to give it all away”.
This week Feeney, 89, achieved his goal. The Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation he set up in secret in 1982 and transferred almost all of his wealth to, has finally run out of money.
As he signed papers to formally dissolve the foundation, Feeney, who is in poor health, said he was very satisfied with “completing this on my watch”. From his small rented apartment in San Francisco, he had a message for other members of the super-rich, who may have pledged to give away part of their fortunes but only after they have died: “To those wondering about Giving While Living: try it, you’ll like it.”
Feeney, who gave most of his money away in secret, said he hoped more billionaires would follow his example and use their money to help address the world’s biggest problems.
“Wealth brings responsibility,” he often said. “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.”
Christopher Oechsli, the president and chief executive of The Atlantic Philanthropies, said Feeney would not preach his views to other members of the global super-rich: “But he would scratch his head and say ‘how many yachts or pairs of shoes do you need? What is it all this wealth accumulation about, when you can look about you and see such tremendous needs’.”
Oeschsli said Feeney would not criticise other people for not giving more “but he would be dumbfounded – what is all that wealth about if you’re not going to do good with it?”
He said the one-time $8bn man would encourage the likes of Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and world’s richest person who has an estimated $186bn fortune, to “pick a global problem that interests you and invest your wealth and get involved”.
Feeney was influenced by Andrew Carnegie’s essay The Gospel of Wealth, with its declaration that “the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor”.
“I have always empathised with people who have it tough in life,” Feeney said in a rare interview with Ireland’s RTE in 2010. “And the world is full of people who don’t get enough to eat.”
Feeney has lived a remarkably frugal lifestyle, not owning a car or home, and only one pair of shoes. He was known for flying only in economy class, even when members of his family and colleagues would travel in business class on the same plane.
Oeschsli, who has worked for Feeney for more than 30 years, said his boss had once tried to live a life of luxury but it didn’t suit him. “He had nice places [homes] and nice things. He tried it on and it wasn’t for him,” Oeschsli said.
“He doesn’t own a place, doesn’t own a car. The stories of his frugality are true: he does have a $10 Casio watch and carry his papers in a plastic bag. That is him. That’s what he felt comfortable with, and that’s really who Chuck has been.”
It was in the early 1980s when his Duty Free Shoppers (DFS) Group empire was raking in huge amounts of money, that Feeney decided he would give it all away. He secretly transferred his shares in the company to the Atlantic Philanthropies. “What am I going to do with it [all the money],” he recalled thinking. “Like many of the wealthy people today they have [so much] money that they wouldn’t be able to spend it.”
His attitude to money is in stark contrast to his DFS co-founder, Robert Miller, the 293rd richest person in the world, who has a $6bn fortune. Miller has luxury homes in Hong Kong, New York, Paris and Gstaad, Switzerland, as well the 14,500-hectare (35,800 acres) Gunnerside estate country park in Yorkshire. Miller has three socialite daughters: crown princess Marie-Chantal of Greece, Alexandra Miller, and Pia Getty.
Miller and Feeney have not spoken since the latter sold his stake in DFS to luxury goods firm LVMH in 1996. A dispute with Miller over the sale led to Feeney’s once-secret philanthropy being exposed in the run-up to a court challenge. DFS Group operates more than 420 duty-free boutiques at 11 international airports.
Over the years, Feeney has given more than $3.7bn to higher education institutions, including almost $1bn to Cornell University, where he studied hotel administration for free under the GI bill after service as a US air force radio operator during the Korean war.
Feeney has also donated $870m to human rights groups (including $62m in grants to groups campaigning to end the death penalty in the US, and $76m to grassroots campaigns supporting the passage of Obamacare.)
The son of immigrants from County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, he has also donated $1.9bn to projects in the country, as well as the Republic, where he was instrumental in the founding of the University of Limerick. He also helped behind the scenes during the peace process.
In 2003 he joined the protest march through London against the invasion of Iraq.
Feeney has five children, four daughters and one son, with his first wife Danielle. All the children were instructed to work summers as waiters or chambermaids. He later married Helga, a former secretary.
Feeney’s generosity spurred Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to establish the Giving Pledge, under which the world’s richest people commit to giving away at least half their wealth to charity.
Gates credited Feeney with creating a path for other philanthropists to follow. “I remember meeting him before starting the Giving Pledge,” Gates said. “He told me we should encourage people not to give just 50% but as much as possible during their lifetime. No one is a better example of that than Chuck. Many people talk to me about how he inspired them. It is truly amazing.”
Buffett described Feeney as “my hero and Bill Gates’ hero – he should be everybody’s hero”.