Irish American former billionaire Chuck Feeney and his Atlantic Philanthropies group have announced their final gift, a record $600 million to combat health issues, racism and inequality in South Africa, Australia and the United States. The last round of gifts brings Feeney’s total of philanthropic giving to $8 billion spread out over 35 years, in 23 countries on five continents.
Feeney has given about $2 billion to Ireland, mostly to educational institutions but also to foster peace in the North and to support minorities such as gay and lesbian groups.
The aim of the final $600 million grant, according to Atlantic CEO Chris Oechsli, is to bring forward 3,500 young leaders in the next few years who can lead the fight in those countries for equality, on health issues and against racism.
Chuck Feeney’s total giving of $8 billion dollars makes him fourth on the all-time list of great philanthropists behind only Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and Sir Ka-shing Li, the Hong Kong business magnate often called the “Chuck Feeney of the East” for his modest lifestyle.
Feeney’s mantra of “Giving While Living” has been adopted by Gates and Buffett and has become the greatest single movement in philanthropy.
Oechsli, in his letter to Atlantic personnel, clearly identifies the presidency of Donald Trump and nationalist movements around the world as dangerous for the type of progressive agenda on issues such as racism and inequality that Atlantic have encouraged.
“The results of the election put into sharper focus the work Atlantic has done and what there still is to do. In the communities we have supported, there is a growing sense that the notable social advances made over the past few decades may be reversed. The many battles for dignity, rights and equality must contend with the recent resurgence of nationalism and nativism. There is a renewed threat to the vulnerable communities that Atlantic’s grantees have long helped to defend, protect and empower.”
Feeney, now 85, lives in San Francisco and was the 2016 honoree at the American Ireland Fund dinner where he made brief remarks.
He was born in the working-class Irish town of Elizabeth, NJ. His mother Madeline was a nurse, his father Leo an insurance agent. His family roots are in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.
He made his fortune in duty free shops now called DFS and when he sold them he began his philanthropic giving in earnest.
In 2012, Forbes magazine described him as "the man who arguably has done more for Ireland than anyone since Saint Patrick."
They also called him the James Bond of the philanthropic world for his secret giving over many years.
Chief executive Christopher G Oechsli recently reported on the nearly $2bn invested in Ireland since 1990, including $21m in “advocating for and securing human rights in Northern Ireland.” Feeney played a major role in the Irish peace process and was a key figure in bringing about the IRA ceasefire when he guaranteed Sinn Fein a Washington office for three years, a key demand.
The foundation's final Irish grants focused on ensuring “the sustainability of key grantee organizations that will hold government accountable for providing services and meeting its commitments.”
The University of Limerick has been one of the foundation's biggest beneficiaries. Feeney has invested nearly $180m across a range of fields at the university including research, medical and scientific innovation, athletics and student residences, and has also helped build several buildings at the school, including the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University Arena, and Glucksman Library.
The fund has also benefited other Irish universities including NUIG (€39.7m); UCC (€79.1m); DCU (€112.8m); Trinity College Dublin (€80.6m); UCD (€31.4m); NUI Maynooth (€29.3m); and Queen’s University Belfast (€116.8m).
Atlantic Philanthropies will have divested nearly $8bn by the time its operations across the globe come to a close.
Here's an RTE, Ireland's national broadcaster, documentary on Chuck Feeney: