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Who is Chuck Feeney?

01/11/2024 - Financial Wellness & Life Planning

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Giving While Living

Chuck Feeney died last October, at age 92. Who’s he? 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 was a philanthropist that few have heard of, because he hated publicity.

Chuck Feeney was born in New Jersey in 1931 during the Great Depression. He served in the Air Force during the Korea 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 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 DFS paid dividends to Feeney of $12,000. Ten years later, the annual payout had grown to $12 million.

But Feeney grew somewhat disillusioned with his wealth. When asked if he was rich, he said, “How much is rich? Beyond all expectations. Beyond all deserving, so to speak. I just reached the conclusion with myself that money, buying boats and all the trimmings didn’t appeal to me.” He decided to give his wealth away.

In 1984 Feeney 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 government.

His philanthropy continued substantially in secret and under the radar until 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%. Over the years Feeney gave $8 billion to charity. According to the New York Times, in his last decades Feeney did not own a home or a car, preferred buses to taxis, and rented a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco where he lived with his second wife.

How is The Giving Pledge coming along? As of 2023, there were 242 pledgers in 29 countries who have promised that half of their wealth will go to charity. Pledgers range in age from 30s to 90s, with the largest group in their 60s. Mr. Feeney recommended 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.

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