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Remembering the James Bond of Philanthropy

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

The entrepreneurial realm has just suffered a great loss. Well-known Irish-American philanthropist Chuck Feeny passed away this Tuesday, October 9. Although this is a time of mourning for his family, friends, and colleagues, it’s also a great time to celebrate his legacy and accomplishments.

The Billionaire Who Gave It All Away

Born in New Jersey during the Great Depression, in light of his insurmountable success, Feeney gave an all-new meaning to “humble beginnings.” Nevertheless, he certainly didn’t have the worst upbringing; his mother worked as a hospital nurse, and his father was an insurance underwriter, which afforded him amenities and comforts many could not afford during that time.

While Feeney accomplished a lot during his 90+ years on earth, he was most well-known for being “the billionaire who gave it all away.” This is because he, indeed, amassed quite a fortune by selling duty-free goods to international travelers.

Nevertheless, he viewed wealth as a trap rather than an asset. After spending his life reading publications created by the likes of Andrew Carnegie, and was particularly impressed with his essay “Wealth,” which asserts ‘to die rich is to die disgraced.’ Therefore, rather than simply hoarding his wealth, he opted to give it to the less fortunate.

Founding the Atlantic Philanthropies

In order to put his money to good use by helping others, Feeney founded the Atlantic Philanthropies in 1982. His goal was to help support people and worthy causes from across the globe. The main focal points of the organization were health, education, reconciliation, and human rights.

With the help of his team and his own devices, he found lots of causes worthy of his support and was able to send thousands of dollars to help improve the lives and ventures of those in need.

The James Bond of Philanthropy

As yet another plot twist in his already awesome life, for the first 15 years of running his organization, Feeney opted to donate these funds in secrecy rather than cashing in on the publicity commonly associated with giving away such large amounts of cash.

Part of what makes his story so inspiring is that he literally visited foreign countries in order to get a real idea of who was most in need and donate his resources. He traveled to areas such as Australia, Cuba, and the Republic of Ireland, among others. Although the recipients were aware of where the money was coming from, they were forbidden from revealing that information to the general public.

However, Feeney wasn’t a total rebel without a cause. In addition to enjoying his anonymity, another reason he chose to keep his identity a secret was to attract more donors; he figured that donors might have been inspired to donate more money in order to uncover his identity. Either way, he finally came out of hiding in 1997 on his own.

Top Beneficiaries

Although Feeney donated millions upon millions of dollars over the years, some organizations benefited from his generosity more than others. Here is a look at his top beneficiaries:

  • Cornell University– Feeney’s alma mater, received a total of nearly $1 billion from his organization; this included a donation of $350 million, which helped fund the creation of the institution’s New York City Tech Campus on Roosevelt Island.
  • Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) — From 1993–2015, $132m — this Irish organization also received the single largest donation at once in 2012 — $24 million; those funds were earmarked for the university’s Institute of Health Sciences Center for Experimental Medicine.
  • Other Irish Institutions — Feeney donated a total of nearly $1 billion to mostly third-level institutions such as the University of Limerick and Dublin City University.
  • Honorable Mentions–He also gave varied amounts to causes such as Sinn Féin, which is a left-wing Irish nationalist party with historical ties to the IRA, the modernization of public-health structures in Vietnam, and The Giving Pledge, which was founded by fellow billionaires Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates.

When it was all said and done, Feeney had given out over $8 billion dollars to his various causes.

Accolades

While he didn’t receive much credit or attention in terms of his philanthropic efforts, he did eventually receive the accolades he deserved. He was honored by Time Magazine in 1997, and his efforts were immortalized in his biography, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing, in 2007, as well as a documentary titled Secret Billionaire: The Chuck Feeney Story.

Additionally, he was honored by his alma mater in 2010 when he received the Icon of Industry Award. Also, all Irish Universities agreed to bestow him with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws degree in 2012; he received the “Presidential Distinguished Service Award” during that same year. He also received the UCSF Medal for outstanding personal contributions to the University of California. In 2019, he was made Honorary Queensland Great for his contribution to Queensland.

Finally, he was once again honored by Cornell in 2020 when they announced that Cornell University would rename East Avenue “Feeney Way.” In April 2023, the university announced that the Tech campus central thoroughfare, “Tech Walk,” would also be named “Feeney Way.”

Humble Endings

Despite being well-off, Feeney never fully embraced his billionaire status; he spent most of his life traveling in coach with his most treasured reading materials stored safely in plastic bags. He owned neither a house nor a car and wore a $10 Casio watch.

Nevertheless, he did have two marriages; one to Danielle, who is a French Algerian student he married in 1959; they had four daughters. His other marriage was to his secretary, Helga, whom he married in 1995.

In the end, Feeney showed the world the power of hard work, determination, and fierce entrepreneurship without the evils of greed. He lived a full life and was loved by his family, friends, and colleagues alike.

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