Later this year Chuck Feeney will officially go broke, and no one will be happier than Feeney himself.
Chuck Feeney will have given away the last dollar of his $9 billion fortune, $2 billion of it to Ireland. He will be delighted to kiss his last dime goodbye says Christopher Oechsli, the CEO of Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies.
Oechsli revealed the news when he spoke to a business podcast on RTE, Ireland’s national broadcast station.
Now living in San Francisco after globe-trotting all his adult life, Feeney created Duty-Free Shops, known as DFS, and eventually sold his shares, netting an absolute fortune.
He was loudly proclaimed as a billionaire, but little did anyone know he was secretly giving every penny away starting 35 years ago.
I’ve known him since 1987 and never knew for years what he was up to until Forbes magazine broke the story.
He came from modest means, born and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His mother was an extraordinary woman who was known for her charity and compassion that she clearly passed on to her son.
Though one of the wealthiest men in the world at one point, Feeney never cared about the trappings. His mother’s example inspired him to create what became known as “Giving While Living” – in other words, go broke by giving your money away. He always said he wanted his last check to bounce.
Giving While Living has been taken up by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates as the best way to dispense their wealth by helping others.
Getting Gates and Buffett to follow you is a big deal. As Forbes wrote, “Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are the two most iconic philanthropists in the world, having given away tens of billions to much fanfare. But their role model is Chuck Feeney, a former billionaire who gave away his entire fortune almost completely unnoticed.”
“Chuck has set an example,” Buffet said recently. “It’s a real honor to talk about a fellow who is my hero and Bill Gates’ hero. He should be everybody’s hero.”
In Ireland Feeney transformed university education, helped make peace in Northern Ireland and funded human rights organizations, especially those that catered to the excluded. Irish education would look entirely different without him.
One of his more recent gifts was $177 million to find a cure for dementia with funds split between Ireland and California. He also gave $100 million to start the new Mission Bay state-of-the-art hospital in San Francisco.
At the Ireland Fund dinner in San Francisco a few years back where he finally agreed to be acknowledged, Gates appeared on the video congratulating Chuck as the man who led the charge on Giving While Living. And for inspiring him.
When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are your main cheerleaders it’s nice to be Chuck Feeney.
Even nicer was the incredible standing ovation when he was introduced to the packed room. I have rarely heard such a prolonged and heartfelt salute.
So much of his generosity will never be known. I’ve seen him on plane flights cut out some hard-luck story from a newspaper and know a personal check was forthcoming that never came under the Atlantic rubric.
These days at age 86, Chuck lives in a small rented apartment in San Francisco. His wife Helga is a wonderful woman. There's a special place for her in the annals of Chuck Feeney lore.
He never takes himself seriously, but he takes his mission very seriously indeed. Now that Chuck is finally, absolutely, irredeemably completely, utterly, absolutely, totally, indisputably broke I bet there’s a smile on his face. He’s looking forward to bouncing that check, probably to his bookie.