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Chuck Feeney: The billionaire who gave it all away

How one man's extraordinary generosity reshaped philanthropy.

Chuck Feeney: The billionaire who gave it all away
Cover Image Source: YouTube | Forbes

While many amass great wealth, few are like Charles Francis Feeney, who donated his entire fortune. Charles Feeney, a savvy tech investor who pioneered duty-free shops globally, died aged 92 on October 9, 2023, according to The New York Times. However, before dying peacefully in his San Francisco home, he donated his entire $8 billion fortune to charity.

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A post shared by The Atlantic Philanthropies (@theatlanticphilantropies)


The Atlantic Philanthropies, foundations Feeney began funding in the early 1980s, initially shared the news on their website. Despite his wealth, Feeney spent his final days in a modest rented apartment. Feeney made headlines in 2016 when he donated $7 million to his alma mater, Cornell University. It was for the student community service work. With this donation, Feeney officially cleared out the Atlantic Philanthropies' accounts, fulfilling his pledge to give away all his wealth before dying.

According to the outlet, the former billionaire retained only $2 million for himself after living a humble life while he worked to expand his business for six decades. "Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model and the ultimate example of giving while living," co-founder of Microsoft Bill Gates told Forbes in 2012. Warren Buffett handed over a Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award to Feeney in 2014 and called him "my hero and Bill Gates's hero—he should be everybody's hero," per Forbes. In contrast to other philanthropists, Feeney anonymously contributed to medical institutions, universities, human rights groups, and others.


His charity work aimed to improve people's lives in the United States, Vietnam, South Africa, Australia, Israel, and Jordan, to name a few. Being an Irish-American, he was more open about his charity work in Northern Ireland, which he visited frequently. He was also invited to join leaders of the United States, Britain, and Ireland at the initiation of a power-sharing government in Belfast in 2007. He used to make most of his donations to institutions through cashier's cheques and the beneficiaries were informed that the benefactor happens to be a generous person who wished to remain anonymous.

Feeney had a difficult childhood as he was raised in a working-class household that struggled during the Great Depression. He went on to serve in the Air Force, then studied hotel management and entered the duty-free shopping business. By the 1980s, he had invested about $35 million into the hotel business, land deals, retail shops, clothing companies, and tech start-ups. However, his affluent life was not really doing much to bring him peace. "He was beginning to have doubts about his right to have so much money," Conor O'Clery wrote in a biography of Mr. Feeney, "The Billionaire Who Wasn't."




Feeney turned his extravagant lifestyle around and started living humbly. "All Feeney's instincts, instilled in him by the example of his parents, by the sharing culture of his blue-collar upbringing in New Jersey, by his desire not to distance himself from his boyhood neighbors and friends, and by his own innate kindness and concern for others, undoubtedly shaped his decision," O'Clery further wrote.


His anonymity as a humanitarian benefaction was finally disclosed in 1997 after Feeney and a partner sold their interest in Duty-Free Shoppers to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. The legal filings disclosed that the value of his share at $1.5 billion belonged to a philanthropist residing in Bermuda who has been making anonymous donations for the past 15 years. It was actually Feeney himself. The world will always remember a man like him and his generosity during his lifetime in helping those in need.


Editor's note: This article was originally published on October 11, 2023. It has since been published.

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