The past several weeks, this weekly post has featured average, everyday people doing good things for others, and really, that is perhaps the best sort of philanthropy there is. It motivates us all, reminds us that we don’t need to be wealthy or powerful to do good things, to help make the world just a little bit better. Giving, after all, begins in our own backyard. Today, however, I want to focus on a man who is, by most standards, wealthy, but his philanthropy far exceeds his own personal wealth. His name is Charles Francis Feeney, but his friends call him Chuck.
While others may have given more in their lifetimes, notably George Soros, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet, there are some things about Chuck Feeney’s generosity that stand above the rest. First, often referred to as the James Bond of philanthropy, Feeney does not toot his own horn, and in fact gave away his fortune in secret for many years, until a business dispute resulted in his identity being revealed in 1997.
Second, he is a frugal man, living in a rented apartment, and flies in the economy section. He wears a rubber Casio watch because he says it keeps time just as well as a Rolex. A January article by Jim Dwyer in the New York Times says, “Until he was 75, he traveled only in coach, and carried reading materials in a plastic bag. For many years, when in New York, he had lunch not at the city’s luxury restaurants, but in the homey confines of Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion on East 57th Street, where he ate the burgers.”
Third, unlike other well-known philanthropists who have given away between 6% – 50% of their wealth, Mr. Feeney has given away his entire fortune many times over. He has, it is estimated, given away more than $8 billion, and his current net worth is between $1 – $2 million. An article in Business Insider that ranks the 20 top philanthropists along with what they refer to as a ‘generosity index’, calculates that Chuck Feeney has given away 420,000% of his money! Let that one sink in for a minute. Four-hundred and twenty-thousand percent.
Feeney is now 85 years old and just last year made what will likely be his final donation, $7 million to Cornell University, to support students doing community service work. The bulk of his donations have supported higher education, public health, human rights and scientific research.
During the early 1990s, Mr. Feeney met secretly with paramilitary forces in Belfast, Northern Ireland, urging them to drop armed guerrilla conflict and promising financial support if they embraced electoral politics. He paid to create a public health system in Vietnam, and to provide access to antiretroviral treatment for AIDS in southern Africa. He has supported education, science, health care, aging and civil rights in the U.S., Australia, Vietnam, Bermuda, South Africa and Ireland.
Operation Smile, a charity that corrects cleft palates in children from poor nations, is a classic Feeney cause: a one-time $250 investment to cover the cost of a simple surgery that will markedly improve every day of the patient’s life. He’s given $19.5 million there.
Even other philanthropists praise Mr. Feeney. Bill Gates, in an interview with Forbes said, “Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model, and the ultimate example of giving while living.” Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, credit Feeney as a major inspiration for both the $30 billion-strong Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Giving Pledge, which has enlisted more than 90 of the world’s richest to grant half their wealth to charity.
In 2007, fellow Irishman Conor O’Clery wrote a biography of Chuck Feeney, titled, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing. According to Forbes, George Clooney is considering adapting Feeney’s story for the silver screen. When asked who should portray him in the movie, Feeney responded, “Probably Danny DeVito.” (Note: Chuck Feeney is not very tall 🙂 )
A few of my favourite Feeney quotes:
“People who have money have an obligation. I wouldn’t say I’m entitled to tell them what to do with it but to use it wisely.”
“People used to ask me how I got my jollies, and I guess I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t helping people.”
“You can only wear one pair of pants at a time.”
“I don’t dislike money, but there’s only so much money you can use.”
“I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living – to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition.”
“If you want to give it away, think about giving now. It’s a lot more fun than when you’re dead.”
The above-referenced New York Times article makes some comparisons between the philanthropy of Feeney and that of Donald Trump, and comes to the conclusion that they are mirror images, or exact opposites. It is well worth the read! Links to two other good articles about this man are listed below. The more I read, the more I came to admire Chuck Feeney …. this is the kind of person the world needs more of today. Hats off to you, Charles Feeney!