When it comes to the world's most generous philanthropists, it's hard to top Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. By the time those two men die, they will have donated a combined $60-100 billion in personal wealth to philanthropic causes. But neither of these billionaires would be making news for their storied giving if not for one billionaire whom you've likely never heard of and wouldn't recognize in a crowd: Chuck Feeney. And while the total dollar value of Chuck's charity doesn't come close to Buffett or Gates' total philanthropic contributions, his story is truly inspirational nonetheless. Once boasting a personal net worth of $7.5 billion, Chuck Feeney has successfully given almost all of his fortune away to charity. Shockingly, Chuck now claims to be worth a paltry $2 million. In other words, he's given away 99 percent of his fortune in his own lifetime. That would be an extremely commendable achievement on its own, but Chuck's real legacy will likely be far outweighed by the larger impact his actions inadvertently had on fellow billionaires around the world. Without Chuck Feeney's "Giving While Living" philosophy, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and subsequently hundreds of other billionaires may never have agreed to donate the majority of their fortunes away while they're still alive.
Born in New Jersey during the Great Depression to a blue-collar Irish-American couple, Feeney first showed a propensity for business at the age of 10, when he sold Christmas cards door-to-door. After serving as a radio operator in Japan for the U.S. Air Force, Feeney attended Cornell University on the G.I. Bill. In 1960, Feeney founded Duty Free Shoppers in Hong Kong with business partner Robert Miller. DFS would eventually grow into the largest duty-free retail operation in the world, earning Feeney a slot in the top 25 richest Americans by 1988. Little did the list-makers know, he'd already given away most of his personal fortune, technically disqualifying him from all "richest" lists. That's because in 1982 Feeney secretly transferred the majority of his fortune to his newly founded charity, The Atlantic Philanthropies.
When he first began his philanthropic activities in the 1980s, he was obsessive about their secrecy. To avoid U.S. disclosure requirements, Feeney set the Atlantic Philanthropies up in Bermuda. Many of the foundation's benefactors had no idea where the huge sums of cash were coming from, and those that did were sworn to secrecy. And because of his Bermuda base, Feeney's donations were not eligible for tax deductions. His sister has speculated that Feeney's secrecy might have been inspired from his time as a code-breaker for the National Security Agency, where he wasn't allowed to tell anyone about his job.
He only went public about his charity in 1997, when he was sure the sale of DFS would blow his cover anyway. Still, he stayed out of the public eye as much as he could until the last decade, when he realized that his own giving might inspire other billionaires. Gates and Buffett are just two of the better-known billionaires to follow suit. As of July 2013, 113 individual billionaires and couples have singed what is now known as "The Giving Pledge", a promise to give half their fortunes to charity. The first 40 donors alone pledged a combine $120 billion in donations. Over the next 20-30 years, that amount could grow by an additional $100-$200 billion!
Feeney's personal giving list has included $1 billion to higher education in Ireland and nearly the same amount to his alma mater Cornell University. He's helped fund the peace processes in both Ireland and South Africa during the apartheid era. He's given $350 million to help Vietnam's healthcare and higher education institutions. He's also given money to help treat children born with cleft palates, to various cancer projects, to AIDS research in South Africa, and to support the abolition of the death penalty in the United States. All told, The Atlantic Philanthropies has given away roughly $6 billion since 1982. The remaining $1.5 billion will be fully doled out by 2016 and the foundation will cease operations completely by 2020.
Throughout his life, the 82-year-old tycoon has been known for his humble and private lifestyle. Feeney is not a flashy dresser. He's spent his life living in rented apartments and flying coach. He made his own children work their ways through college and his name does not appear on any institutional building anywhere in the world. His intended goal is to give every last penny away before he dies. In a rare public interview, he told the New York Times that he hopes the last check he writes bounces.
The irony of Feeney's life is obvious: A man who made a fortune with duty free stores around the world is so fiercely duty bound to the world's less fortunate. If more of the world's wealthy lived their life in the style of Chuck Feeney, the world would certainly be a better place. Furthermore, Chuck Feeney's personal example has changed the world in ways that we probably can't even imagine yet. A true inspiration.