Philanthropy with a radical edge


Biography:The riveting story of a billionaire who gave it all away disturbs deeply rooted assumptions about wealth and power, writes Fintan O'Toole

At the end of this year, 19 students at Trinity College Dublin will graduate after a two-year course. That may not sound like a big deal, but these students are people with intellectual disabilities. The idea that such people have both the right and the ability to participate in third-level education is a radical and exciting one and it represents a genuine step forward for human rights and ideas of inclusiveness. The Irish Government ought to be congratulated for funding such an innovative idea, except for the fact that it does no such thing. The money comes from private sources, much of it from Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation established by Charles "Chuck" Feeney, whose extraordinary story is told in Conor O'Clery's riveting new book.

Projects such as the Trinity course for people with intellectual disabilities - just one of thousands in Ireland, the US, Vietnam, Australia and elsewhere supported by Feeney's money - illustrate the difference between old-style charity and the kind of radical philanthropy that he has pioneered. It is not just that most big donors revel in publicity, gratitude and the tax breaks that ensure that they can stay rich while giving money away, whereas Feeney tried to remain anonymous and claimed no tax breaks. It is, more importantly, that Feeney has used the billions of dollars he is giving away, not to salve his own conscience but to leverage real social change. As with the Trinity course, he has been funding things that governments seldom have the imagination to pay for.

The assumption is that when all his money is gone, he will have left behind not just thousands of lives that are better than they would have been, but ideas and projects whose beneficiaries will have enough power not to need charity.

Chuck Feeney is no Lord Bountiful, dispensing largesse from on high. He marched against the Iraq war. He visited one of the Rossport Five in prison. He travelled to Cuba, met Fidel Castro, and donated money to support the country's outstanding medical education system. Neil O'Dowd describes him to O'Clery, only half in jest, as "a flaming Communist".

And it is that activist edge, that sense of real engagement, that has made his philanthropy both so potent and, for some, so unsettling.

That Feeney is as much a political activist as a benefactor is obvious from the two episodes by which he is best known in Ireland. He took the decision in 1994 to fund Sinn Féin's Washington office as a way of encouraging the party and the IRA to embrace a wholly political strategy. (He also gave money to Gary McMichael of the UDA.) And, a decade later, he invited journalist Frank Connolly to establish an Irish equivalent of the Center for Public Integrity in the US and agreed to stump up $5 million over five years to fund it. Conor O'Clery reveals that no less a figure than the Taoiseach decided to intervene before the Centre for Public Inquiry (CPI) was established, attempting to warn off Feeney. In the subsequent controversy, Feeney, an Irish citizen, was described by John Waters in this newspaper as a "foreign 'philanthropist' sticking his nose and his dollars into the affairs of a sovereign nation" and Mary Harney described the CPI initiative as "sinister".

It is interesting that Feeney was a sinister foreign meddler when he planned to spend $5 million on a project to investigate the links between business and politics but a great Irishman when he was spending $1 billion on Irish higher education, health and social services. The contradiction is indicative of the degree to which, for all his benevolence, Feeney disturbs some of the most deeply rooted assumptions about wealth, politics and power.

WHAT MAKES HIM so fascinating, and gives such richness to O'Clery's brilliantly engrossing account, is that Feeney both embodies and rebukes the American Dream. Born in a blue-collar Irish-American neighbourhood of New Jersey in 1931, when the Great Depression was touching its lower depths, he is the classic self-made man. As a kid, he sold Christmas cards door to door, cleared snow off driveways and rented out beach towels in the summer. After serving in the air force (he had a relatively cushy posting in Japan during the Korean war), he went to Cornell University on the GI Bill to study hotel management.

Having figured out that there was good money to be made selling duty-free liquor to American servicemen returning from Europe, he and a partner built a huge duty-free operation that was perfect for the post-war boomtime, serving as it did both tourists and American bases in Germany and the Pacific, all the time skirting the borders of legality.

When the law tightened, he concentrated on his duty-free shops in Hong Kong and Honolulu. As the company, Duty Free Sales (DFS), expanded - by 1986 it was the world's largest retailer of alcohol - he became seriously rich. By 1978, his personal annual dividend from DFS was $18 million in cash. Feeney was a veritable Horatio Alger story, living proof that anyone could make it rich in the US if they were smart, brave and worked hard.

Yet Feeney had little interest in playing out the myth. It was, according to O'Clery, in Hong Kong, the ultimate haven of enterprise that was free of everything, including social responsibility, that Feeney began to separate himself from the usual aspirations of the wealthy. Instinctively frugal, he saw what too much money did to the children of the men who made it. The Vietnam war and the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers made him question the assumption that wealth alone would make the US a better place. A near-fatal heart attack while running the Honolulu marathon in 1979 brought intimations of mortality.

Gradually, his impulsive generosity turned into structured philanthropy and then, in 1984, to the momentous decision to give away virtually his entire fortune. At the age of 53, and in what O'Clery calls "one of the biggest single transfers of wealth in history", he signed away assets then worth around $600 million and still growing: by 1994, they were worth $2 billion. To date, Atlantic Philanthropies has given away $4 billion.

O'CLERY DOES NOT paint Feeney as a living saint. He writes that Feeney's separation from his wife, Danielle, in 1990 had as much to do with his relationship with his assistant and his "depressed and angry moods at home" as with the increasing divergence between his frugality and her love of the good life. He hints at a tendency to depression about the state of the world and an unwillingness to "express his deepest-felt emotions directly".

But he also allows Feeney's courage and honesty to speak for themselves. It takes guts for a self-made billionaire to say, as Feeney does, that making a fortune owes a lot to luck. It takes an extraordinary self-awareness for a man who has spent half a century pursuing money to appreciate, as Feeney does, the old Irish saying that "there are no pockets on a shroud".

It takes genuine self-confidence to know that you can live without all the trappings that your money used to buy. O'Clery describes, rather delightfully, two Irish members of the Atlantic Philanthropies board encountering Feeney at the airport in Paris while all three were en route to a meeting of the board in Bermuda. They were flying business class, he in economy, and they had a lot of trouble getting him into the airline's luxury lounge.

It is an epic tale that would make a great movie if its moral did not counteract so powerfully the grand narrative of our money-grubbing times. Instead it makes a genuinely fascinating book. As one might expect from the best Irish reporter of modern times, O'Clery turns his prodigious research and mastery of sometimes intricate detail into a tight, pacy, crystal-clear narrative. He also has the astuteness to know that a story as intriguing as this one doesn't need to be hyped or sentimentalised. He does full justice to Feeney's own realisation that wealth, even when you make it from flogging booze and smokes at airports, is not duty-free.

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times journalist

The Billionare Who Wasn't: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away A Fortune By Conor O'Clery. PublicAffairs, 352pp. $26.95