Chuck Feeney: the James Bond of philanthropy

Chuck Feeney © Peter Foley
Chuck Feeney is one of the world’s greatest living philanthropists

Chuck Feeney was a billionaire whose aim had long been to become a millionaire. At 85, Feeney has just achieved his ambition: his Atlantic Philanthropies private foundation made its final grant last month. All told, he has now unburdened himself of $8bn, leaving just $2m to live on – a modest amount for a man who once controlled thousands of times as much. Feeney’s name may not appear anywhere in gilded letters or chiselled marble, says The New York Times, but no other major American philanthropist has ever given away a greater proportion of their wealth during their lifetime.

Raised during the Great Depression in the blue-collar town of Elizabeth, New Jersey, Feeney served in the air force during the Korean War before attending the Cornell School of Hotel Administration on the GI Bill. In 1956, he travelled to France and started selling tax-free alcohol to American sailors. This eventually became Feeney’s Duty Free Shoppers business, which expanded globally and branched into jewellery and cars. What really put it on the map was the explosive growth of Japanese tourism in the mid-1960s.

But for all his success, Feeney has always had frugal tastes, typically travelling standard-class and carrying his daily reading material in a plastic bag. As he points out, “you can only wear one pair of pants at a time”. So starting in 1984, Feeney started giving the surplus away. He has done most of his giving in complete secrecy. You’d never notice him in a crowd, says Forbes: he’s the “James Bond of philanthropy”. Over the last 30 years, he has “criss-crossed the globe conducting a clandestine operation to give away a fortune derived from hawking cognac, perfume and cigarettes in his empire of duty-free shops”. He’s arguably done more for Ireland alone “than anyone since Saint Patrick”.

Feeney’s chosen causes are diverse – everything from higher education and public health, to human rights and scientific research, says the Financial Times. But he selects carefully. Indeed, he’s cited by both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett as “the modern exemplar of ‘the giving while living’ movement”, with all its emphasis on getting the maximum bang for your buck. Feeney “hunts for causes where he can have a dramatic impact and goes all-in”, says Forbes. He’s out to leverage every dollar. And he doesn’t slap his name on libraries and hospitals because he reckons “he can collect additional money from more egocentric tycoons who gladly pay millions for the privilege”.

“I’d be the last guy to tell a wealthy person what to do with their money,” Feeney told The New York Times in 2007. “They’re entitled to do whatever they want.” But for him, putting it to work is a no-brainer. “I’m a competitive type of person, says Feeney. “I don’t dislike money, but there’s only so much of it you can use… People used to ask me how I got my jollies. I guess I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t.”