Born: April 23rd, 1931
Died: October 9th, 2023
Chuck Feeney was an Irish-American who made a fortune as a worldwide retailer of luxury goods, and then spent the last four decades of his life giving it all away, mostly in clandestine fashion. By the time of his death on October 9th, aged 92, he had donated more than $8 billion (€7.5 billion) to education, medical research, healthcare, ageing and civil society through his foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, in the United States, Ireland, Vietnam, Australia, Bermuda and South Africa.
Feeney was unique as a major, global philanthropist in that he never sought recognition or honours; he courted anonymity and gave away the totality of his vast fortune in his lifetime. His name does not appear on a single university and hospital building he funded around the world, although several institutions - including University of Limerick - recently named thoroughfares on campus ‘Feeney Way’ in his honour. His clandestine methods led Forbes Magazine to call him the James Bond of Philanthropy.
Charles J Feeney was born and brought up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the son of an insurance underwriter and a nurse, both descended from Irish immigrants. His father’s mother came from Larganacarran near Kinawley in Co Fermanagh. His parents were known as good Samaritans in their neighbourhood, providing an example to their children of helping others in need.
After service in occupied Japan during the Korean War, Feeney was awarded a GI scholarship to study hotel administration at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Lacking funds, he sold baskets of sandwiches to fraternities, earning the nickname of ‘the sandwich man’. A tutor told him, after an economics test: “You have a flair for writing but no knowledge of the subject matter. Try journalism.’”
On graduating in 1956, Feeney came to Europe to seek his fortune. In France he met and married Danielle Morali-Daninos, whose father was a Parisian psychiatrist. With fellow Cornell alumnus Robert Miller, he began selling duty free items and cars to US military bases around the world. They secured the first duty free concessions in Hong Kong and Hawaii and cofounded Duty Free Shoppers (DFS). With the pent-up demand among postwar Japanese tourists for consumer goods, DFS expanded quickly from modest beginnings to become the world’s biggest retailer of perfume, tobacco and spirits. Feeney was the driving force. A natural linguist, he mastered enough Japanese to deal personally with their main customers. The partners began earning hundreds of millions of dollars annually in cash dividends.
As his riches multiplied, Feeney became uncomfortable with great wealth and the corrosive effect it might have on his family. Drawing inspiration from the writings of the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who famously said that he who dies rich, dies disgraced, he began making donations to charities. In 1984 he transferred all his wealth and corporate assets to a foundation he set up in Bermuda, today known as the Atlantic Philanthropies, keeping less than $5 million for himself. At the time he made substantial provisions for his wife Danielle, and this was increased when they divorced in 1993. He married a second time, to Helga Flaiz. Though he no longer owned his fortune, Feeney continued to manage the foundation’s assets and supervise the grant-making. As only his closest associates knew his secret, most people still took him to be a billionaire, one of the top 25 richest Americans.
Feeney brought his brilliance in business to bear on his giving. He took to circumventing the globe several times a year seeking philanthropic opportunities. At the same time, on behalf of his foundation, Feeney invested heavily in retail and property ventures. In Ireland the foundation owned at different times Kilternan Golf and Country Club; Heritage House on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin; the Woodenbridge Hotel in Co Wicklow, and a part share in Ashford Castle. Feeney transformed a former adoption home in Blackrock, Co Dublin, into the Trade Management Institute for East European students just as the Cold War was ending. He built Castletroy Park Hotel in Limerick – it was among his favourite projects – and he loved bringing former classmates from Elizabeth, New Jersey, for class reunions there.
He became involved in philanthropy in Ireland in the late 1980s. John Healy, then head of the Irish American Partnership, introduced him to Ed Walsh, president of the struggling National Institute of Higher Education in Limerick, now the University of Limerick. Feeney saw an opportunity to ‘do good things with the money’. The funds flowed in, and the Limerick campus was transformed. In the succeeding years, every university on the island of Ireland received tens of millions in funding.
Warren Buffet marvelled that Chuck told him he wanted his last cheque to bounce.
A hard-headed businessman, Feeney always liked to attract matching funds to maximise his giving. In Queensland, Australia, for example, he created the biggest cancer centre in the southern hemisphere by providing one-third of the cost, prompting the state and federal Government to put up the other two-thirds. In Ireland in the 1990s, when Government research funding was a paltry £5 million a year, Feeney’s foundation offered to put up £75 million if the Government would match it. The deal went through after Feeney turned up in Bertie Ahern’s office – his glasses held together by a paper clip – to persuade the Taoiseach of its merits. The result was the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), which revolutionised research in Irish universities.
Passionate about his Irish roots, Feeney joined a small group of Irish-American peacemakers organised by publisher Niall O’Dowd in the early 1990s, which sought to persuade the IRA to end its campaign of violence and adopt political methods. With White House approval, Feeney supported a Sinn Féin office in Washington out of his own foundation salary to the tune of $20,000 a month over three years. He also funded loyalist politicians and directed the foundation to underwrite reconciliation and civil society groups in both parts of Ireland for several years.
Not all his Irish ventures ended well. He earmarked $5 million for a Centre for Public Inquiry in Dublin in 2005, but this collapsed amid controversy.
Feeney spent several weeks every year in Ireland, staying in an apartment on Lower Baggot Street. Modest, shy and courteous, he would visit beneficiaries rather than summon them to meet him. In his early years of anonymity he posed as simply one of a group of concerned Americans. His lawyer Harvey Dale would warn recipients not to ask where the money came from, and if they found out and made it public, the funding would cease.
Feeney invariably travelled economy class and wore a cheap watch and bookshop reading glasses. He did not own a house, car or any property, preferring to live in small apartments acquired by the foundation in different countries. He used taxis and public transport and carried his papers and documents in a plastic bag. One beneficiary said he was more like a Benedictine monk than a billionaire. Though secretive, he was not reclusive, and he had circles of acquaintances in several countries. Nor was he mean. He gave generous presents, and insisted on picking up the bill in restaurants, where his order was always chicken and white wine.
He rarely talked about himself and typically communicated his ideas and interests by passing on articles or pages torn from magazines. His politics were left of centre: he marched against the Iraq War in London and spent hours with Fidel Castro in Havana.
Feeney’s anonymity ended in 1996 when he sold his foundation’s share of DFS for $1.6 billion. He needed liquid funds for his giving, and the duty-free business was declining. His partner Bob Miller took legal action in a bid to stop the sale and the transfer of Feeney’s DFS shares to a foundation became known. Their relationship was already strained over Feeney’s stubborn refusal to give up private retail activities in Hawaii that Miller claimed competed with DFS. The two men never spoke again. Feeney set aside $26 million of the sale proceeds to provide farewell gifts to 2,400 long-term staff.
In 2003, Feeney decided that every last cent of his foundation funds should be disbursed in his lifetime
After his cover was blown, Time magazine listed Feeney as runner-up for 1977 person of the year, describing his beneficence as the “grandest of any living American”. Journalist Jim Dwyer of the New York Times characterised him as what Donald Trump would be if he lived his entire existence backward. In interviews, Feeney quoted the ancient Irish saying “there are no pockets in a shroud” to explain his “giving while living” concept. Feeney then co-operated with Conor O’Clery on a biography, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, to promote his template of giving, and the personal satisfaction to be gained from philanthropy. With his cover blown, he would brush away expressions of gratitude with the words: “Don’t thank me. It is you I have to thank, for doing good things with the money.”
In 2003, Feeney decided that every last cent of his foundation funds should be disbursed in his lifetime. Spending down the foundation was the logical conclusion of his preference for bold problem solving for today’s world needs, and his distaste for holding on to wealth. He became a philanthropic model for Bill Gates who called him his hero. Warren Buffett marvelled that Feeney told him he wanted his last cheque to bounce.
At one point, directors at his foundation tried to restrict Feeney’s ability to make ‘big bets’ on capital projects. The dispute became ugly, and his health suffered. After a bruising internal struggle, Feeney emerged triumphant. He then made his biggest capital grant – $350 million to create a ‘Silicon Valley’ in New York.
In 2012, all nine universities on the island of Ireland combined to award him an honorary degree, the first and only time they have combined to honour someone in this way.
Feeney’s final gift to the world was to donate the remaining $740 million of his foundation to build a global network of Atlantic Fellows to advance his vision of a fairer, healthier and more inclusive society. Some $177 million of this went jointly to the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity College Dublin and University of California at San Francisco to advance research on dementia.
Feeney’s legacy is the philanthropic model he created, combining anonymity, freedom of action, entrepreneurship, flexibility, limited lifespan, willingness to make big bets and global impact. Its existence was, and is, a challenge to the tight-fisted rich and the foundations that dole out small amounts each year.
Plagued by ill health, Feeney’s final years were spent in a modest apartment in San Francisco. He is survived by his wife Helga, his former wife Danielle and five children from his first marriage – Juliette, Caroleen, Leslie, Diane and Patrick – and their families.
This article was updated at 11.45am on October 10th