November 1, 2020
“Giving while living”
Before there was The Giving Pledge established by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, there was Chuck Feeney. Both Gates and Buffett claim Feeney as the inspiration for their commitment to give half of their wealth to charity, and their drive to have all wealthy persons make a similar pledge. Feeney is a philanthropist who few have heard of, because he hates publicity.
Chuck Feeney was born in New Jersey in 1931 during the Great Depression. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War and used the GI Bill to attend the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. He and fellow Cornell alum Robert Miller founded the Duty Free Shoppers (DFS) Group in 1960 to sell liquor, tobacco, and other luxury goods to tourists and American servicemen.
The idea was a great success. According to a Forbes article, in 1967 the DFS Group paid dividends to Feeney of $12,000. Ten years later, the annual payout had grown to $12 million.
But Feeney did not want all the money for himself. In 1984 he founded the Atlantic Philanthropies and transferred to it his entire stake in the DFS Group.
He conducted his charity anonymously. Rather than put his name on buildings, Feeney would leverage his donations, getting other wealthy people to join in a project or get matching funds from a government.
His philanthropy continued substantially in secret and under the radar until the DFS Group was sold in 1996. The share going to Atlantic Philanthropies was $1.63 billion.
Feeney’s great plan was to give essentially all of his money away during his life, not just 50%. To that end, Atlantic Philanthropies had a termination date in 2020, by which time all of its funds needed to be expended. That day came this past September, and the foundation has now closed. Over the years Feeney gave $8 billion to charity. However, he is not entirely without resources; he did reserve some retirement money for himself and his wife.
How is The Giving Pledge coming along? As of 2020, there are 211 pledgers in 24 countries who have promised
that half of their wealth will go to charity. Mr. Feeney recommends they not limit their giving to 50%, and that they make their gifts during life, not after death. Only in that way can they get the satisfaction of seeing the good that their money has achieved.