The philanthropist who set the standard for giving while living


ANALYSIS: Chuck Feeney’s mission to give his fortune to worthwhile causes is moving to completion

CHUCK FEENEY doesn’t do anything by half-measures. I realised this when he agreed to co-operate with me on his biography. At the time – nearly 10 years ago – he was probably the most secretive philanthropist in history.

I had got to know him when working in New York for this newspaper. We would occasionally have lunch in PJ Clarke’s on Third Avenue. I suggested that if he wanted to use his model of giving while living to encourage other wealthy people, his story should be told. I was thinking then only of an interview for The Irish Times. He eventually agreed.

I asked him in the interview about his frugal lifestyle. Did he always wear a $15 watch? “Yes,” he replied, “I’ve got a spare one here. I’ll sell it to you.” I told him I couldn’t afford it.

He called me after it was published and we met up in PJ Clarke’s again. Halfway through the chicken pie he said, “I want to thank you for the article,” and slid a brown envelope across the table. He looked around conspiratorially. “Take it, no one is looking.” I kept pushing it back.

Eventually he said, “Well, open it!” Inside was a $15 plastic watch.

Over time I started talking to Chuck about writing his biography. He said that would be a difficult decision for him but I saw he was tempted. A book about his achievements could better promote the merits and joys of giving while living.

Eventually I faxed a formal proposal to him (he doesn’t do email). I explained I would get a publisher to finance the project, that he would have no control over the content and he would have to release his friends, family and beneficiaries from vows of secrecy. “Okay, I’ll think about it,” he said. I thought he would say no.

Next time in PJ Clarke’s – where the waiters know who he is but pretend they don’t – he never mentioned the proposal. So neither did I. But as we parted on Third Avenue I asked, rather resignedly, “Do you want more time to think over ‘that other thing’?”

“No,” he said. “Let’s do it.” And he turned and walked away. So we did it.

That’s when I found that when Feeney decides to commit to something his word is his bond. He gave the green light to everyone to co-operate with me as I travelled around the world – from the United States and Ireland to the French Riviera (such hardship!) – to research his business and philanthropic life.

Just as the most anonymous giver agreed to have his life made public in a book, so the most generous of philanthropists didn’t take half-measures when he opted, after mulling it over for years, to give all his money away – a decision highlighted on Tuesday with the announcement that his foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies would complete grant-making by 2016 and cease operations four years after that.

Some close associates advised Feeney against such a course. Chuck, however, had absorbed Andrew Carnegie’s advice in his essay, The Gospel of Wealth, that the man who dies leaving behind millions would pass away “unwept, unhonoured and unsung”. Though he had passed his vast fortune to the foundation in 1984, it wasn’t until 1997, when Atlantic’s assets were multiplied by the sale of the duty-free empire he co-founded, that Feeney put anything in writing.

In a note on the margins of a draft press release about the sale, he wrote: “I believe that people of substantial wealth potentially create problems for future generations unless they themselves accept responsibility to use their wealth during their lifetime to help worthwhile causes.”

Feeney had come to the view that perpetual foundations can never be as flexible, fluid, opportunistic or entrepreneurial as those with a limited life-span. They are mostly restricted to a five per cent benchmark to maintain the endowment while guarding against inflation. Also, when the donor is no longer around the foundation could be doing things he might not approve of. There was the danger, too, as then-foundation chairman Frank Rhodes put it, that staff and directors of long-lived foundations might come to feel they owned the money.

And there was the sheer joy of giving it all away, which Feeney constantly emphasises. I saw it in the pleasure he took when travelling with him. He hates taking credit. When a hospital director in Da Nang in Vietnam began thanking him for funding a paediatric centre, Feeney said, “I should thank you. You are the person doing good things with the money.”

The decision to limit the life of the foundation was made at a board meeting of Atlantic Philanthropies held in the Cornell Club in New York on October 13th, 1999. Chuck submitted a 200-word memorandum on the legacy of his foundation in which he recommended a total lifespan of 20 to 30 years. In it he noted that most foundations were making gifts of a fraction of their assets and this might account for the slow pace in the fight against cancer and other major diseases. The board agreed.

When John Healy took over running the foundation in 2001, he convened a strategic workshop to focus on the implications and to work out a timetable. In 2002 the directors finally set 2016 as the year to go out of business. The die was cast.

Spending down a multi-billion philanthropy requires careful long-term planning, especially for one as unique as Atlantic, which still owns illiquid assets in the form of property and businesses.

With this week’s announcement by Atlantic Philanthropies publicly confirming the decision, 10 months after the appointment of president and CEO Chris Oechsli to oversee the final phase, the spend-down train has finally left the station.

Grant-making in Australia will end this year, and in Vietnam and South Africa next year, and the focus of giving in Ireland and the US will be narrowed.

Feeney has helped it along with recent gifts – enormous by any standards – of $350 million to develop a Silicon Valley-type technology park in New York and $270 million to create the most important new medical centre in the US at Mission Bay in San Francisco. These and scores of university and medical buildings in Ireland, Vietnam, Australia and South Africa will be his foundation’s legacy.

Chuck has now achieved his two main goals, divesting himself of the fortune that made him so uncomfortable and allowing his giving to serve as a model for other billionaires.

When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett launched a campaign in 2010 to encourage the mega-rich to sign a Giving Pledge, they declared they had been inspired by Feeney’s life work.

“Chuck has accomplished so much with Atlantic Philanthropies – in everything from education to medicine and in so many countries throughout the world,” Gates explained to me. “It is great to have such a tangible source for philanthropists to learn from his story and understand his philosophy of giving.”

Buffett described Feeney as their “spiritual leader”. He said, with some awe, after meeting him at a session in Tucson, Arizona, recently with several other persons of great wealth who had signed the pledge: “He wants his last cheque to bounce.”

Conor O’Clery is the author of The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune

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