Charles “Chuck” Francis Feeney, an Irish-American businessman and philanthropist who devoted his entire personal fortune to global philanthropy in his lifetime, died peacefully on October 9 in San Francisco. He was 92.
Chuck Feeney’s philanthropic organizations, The Atlantic Philanthropies, made grants totaling more than $8 billion, much of it anonymously, to causes on five continents. Bill Gates called him the “ultimate example of Giving While Living”.
In his biography, "The Billionaire Who Wasn’t", Feeney said, “I had one idea that never changed in my mind—that you should use your wealth to help people.”
“Try it, you’ll like it,” he said. Besides, “it’s much more fun to give while you are alive than to give when you are dead.”
A native of Elizabeth, New Jersey, he traveled incessantly until recent years, spending substantial time in San Francisco, New York, London, Brisbane, Bangkok and Dublin with his wife, Helga, in pursuit of business opportunities and, ultimately, opportunities to make lasting improvements in the lives of others.
“Chuck was as passionate about making a positive difference in the lives of others as he was about being successful at business,” said Christopher G. Oechsli, President and CEO of Atlantic and long-time adviser to Mr. Feeney.
“He cared more about being effective at what he did than about amassing wealth or collecting awards. In philanthropy, that meant being present and engaged in an unassuming manner with the people and their work who, with his support, could improve the lives of others in meaningful and lasting ways.”
“Chuck Feeney was an exceptional entrepreneur, citizen of the world and friend to people in need,” said Peter Smitham, former Board Chair of The Atlantic Philanthropies.
“In an unprecedented act of generosity, he secretly gave away nearly all of his wealth in the early 1980s to advance opportunities and better outcomes for those who are unfairly disadvantaged or vulnerable to life’s circumstances.”
Feeney was born during the Great Depression to Irish American parents who worked hard to make a good life for their family. He inherited their values and diligence and never forgot his roots, despite his great success in business.
He was a private man who, following the creation of the Atlantic Foundation, chose to live frugally. He was well known for his signature $15 watch, plastic bags for a briefcase and his preference for flying economy.
“Flying in the front of the plane doesn’t get you there any sooner,” he said.
In the last three decades, he did not own a car or home, preferring to stay in modest rented apartments.
Feeney was an entrepreneur from an early age and was always thinking of new money-making schemes, including selling Christmas cards door-to-door and teaming with a friend to shovel sidewalks during snowstorms.
He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1948. After his service, he took advantage of a GI Bill scholarship to earn a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in hotel management—becoming the first member of his family to attend college. On campus, he sold sandwiches to fraternity houses at night to supplement his GI stipend. Feeney and Atlantic have been Cornell’s largest donors, providing almost $1 billion in grants over more than 30 years that transformed the campus and benefited thousands of students.
After graduating, Feeney traveled extensively in Europe and eventually co-founded a duty-free business selling luxury goods to tourists. The business, Duty Free Shoppers (DFS), became the world’s largest luxury goods retailer.
An inveterate traveler, Feeney continually expanded the business into new global ventures in retail, hotels and resorts, and information technology, through the General Atlantic Group, most of which became hugely successful. An avid and wide-ranging reader with an intense analytical approach, he often relied on his instincts in making business decisions and reveled in taking risks.
He “enjoyed the chase” for new business opportunities and strove to excel in business but was less comfortable with holding on to tremendous wealth.
Giving while living
In 1982, Feeney and his family established the Atlantic Foundation, incorporated in Bermuda, and transferred all his business assets to the foundation two years later. By the time Feeney dissolved the foundation in 2020, Atlantic had made more than $8 billion in grants, principally in the United States, The Republic of Ireland, Britain, Northern Ireland, Australia, South Africa, Vietnam, Bermuda, and Cuba. Feeney was the Founding Chairman of The Atlantic Philanthropies and served on its Board from 1982 to 2012.
In keeping with his belief in Giving While Living, Atlantic was a limited life organization committed to advancing knowledge and opportunity by promoting health, equity, and human dignity primarily in 8 regions across the globe. In September 2020, Feeney signed the dissolution papers for the foundation. It is the largest foundation in history to intentionally deploy its entire endowment.
In February 2011, Feeney became the 59th signatory of the Giving Pledge, an effort started by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet. Though Feeney had committed to give away his fortune nearly three decades earlier, he supported the effort to encourage the wealthiest individuals and families in America to dedicate their wealth to philanthropic causes. "I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth,” he wrote, “than to give while one is living — to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition."
In December 2011, the Founding Chairman’s “big bet” approach to philanthropy led to Atlantic committing $350 million to Cornell University to help develop state-of-the-art facilities for Cornell Tech, a graduate applied science and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Opened in 2017, the campus is designed to build New York’s tech capacity, spur innovation and entrepreneurship, and help position the city as a global tech center.
Feeney believed strongly in investing in infrastructure. “Good buildings for good minds can make a big difference in the lives of a lot of people,” he remarked. “Chuck loved once-in-a-generation opportunities like the Cornell Tech campus, and it is fitting something so momentous was among his last major contributions to transformative buildings,” said Oechsli.
In Vietnam, Feeney supported the transformation of the healthcare infrastructure and public health system. In the 1980s, he was the catalyst for Atlantic’s major contributions to rebuilding the Republic of Ireland’s and Northern Ireland’s university infrastructure. Beyond that, Feeney envisioned creating a knowledge economy to provide modern skills for better jobs, so Atlantic partnered with the Irish Government to co-fund a now highly successful research initiative – the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions, known as PRTLI. In Australia, he advanced the “smart state” education efforts in Queensland and strengthening of the health and medical biotech research industry in Victoria and Tasmania. He was the catalyst for major buildings devoted to finding cures for cancer and cardiovascular disease, enhancing global health, and women’s and children’s health at the Mission Bay campus of the University of California, San Francisco.
“Use your wealth to help people. Use your wealth to create institutions to help people,” Feeney often said, summarizing his philanthropic motivation. “When it comes down to it, it’s always people.”
In keeping with Chuck’s orientation and values, Atlantic’s final grants established seven international Atlantic Fellows programs to culminate its historic investments in people and their vision to realize a better world. Over the next two decades, the Atlantic Fellows program and the Atlantic Institute will forge a global community of over 3,500 leaders who collaborate across borders and disciplines to advance fairer, healthier, more inclusive societies.
Feeney steadfastly refused to have his name on any of the approximately 200 buildings his foundation helped fund. Instead, he often used the naming opportunity to encourage other philanthropists to support the efforts. As he approached 80, he relented on receiving personal honors for his philanthropy, in part to bring more attention to Giving While Living.
Feeney was recognized for his tremendous contributions to education, health care, science, and philanthropy three times in 2012. In an historic event, all the universities of Ireland, North and South, jointly conferred an Honorary Doctor of Laws on Feeney. He received, in its inaugural year, the Republic of Ireland’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award for Irish Abroad given to diaspora who make tremendous contributions to the country. The University of California, San Francisco gave him its most prestigious campus award, the UCSF Medal, for outstanding personal contributions to the university’s health science mission.
In 2014, he received the Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Philanthropy and the Inyathelo "Lifetime Philanthropy Award for Giving While Living" in South Africa. In 2015, he was awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy.
Feeney was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame in 2011; the Irish American Hall of Fame in 2018; and received the 2010 Cornell Icon of Industry Award.
In January 2021 he was honored by the Martin Luther King Center with the “Beloved Community Salute to Greatness Award” and was inducted as a Fellow at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
Most recently, Feeney received an honorary degree from Fordham University and he and his wife Helga, received honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Queensland.
In 1997, Time Magazine said: “Feeney's beneficence already ranks among the grandest of any living American….” In his last years, Feeney agreed to allow campuses to name a street or path “The Feeney Way” in the hopes it will inspire others to apply their wealth to good ends.
He is survived by his wife, Helga; five children from his first marriage to Danielle Feeney of France: Juliette Feeney-Timsit of Paris, France; Caroleen Feeney of Los Angeles, California; Leslie Feeney Baily of London, England; Diane Feeney of London, England; and Patrick Feeney of Brussels, Belgium; 16 grandchildren and 4 nieces and nephews.
The family requests that their privacy be respected in this time of mourning and reflection.
Memorials may be made to the following recipients or to a preferred charitable organization of choice: