Remembering Charles Feeney, the man who gave his fortune away
October 17, 2023 | Rebecca Richards
Charles F. “Chuck” Feeney, philanthropist and entrepreneur, died on Oct. 9 at 92, three years after completing his mission to give away his entire fortune before his death.
Feeney was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to an Irish-American immigrant family in 1931. The first college graduate in his family, he attended Cornell University with support from the GI Bill, an experience that later led him to be deemed the “third founder” of Cornell due to the extent of his philanthropic support. In 1959, he married Danielle Morali-Daninos. They would have five children together before their divorce in the 1990s.
From starting a sandwich business as a college student to co-founding Duty Free Shoppers at 29, Feeney had the drive and ambition to realize the elusive American dream. And, with the same financial savvy, he invested in technology, which added to his already impressive fortune. For some time, he lived like billionaires are expected to: luxurious travel, fine dining, and seven houses across the globe. That is, until the early ’80s, when he turned the ambition behind his financial success to giving.
Feeney established the Atlantic Philanthropies with most of his stake in Duty Free Shoppers in 1982. Many, if not most, high-net-worth people have foundations. What sets Feeney apart, however, was his approach to giving that varied so radically from other leading philanthropists of the day — giving away his fortune while he was still alive, prioritizing anonymity, and being deeply engaged in his philanthropy.
For the first 15 years of Atlantic Philanthropies, no one knew the source of the funding. During that time, Feeney visited different regions to discover causes that needed support. He helped with peace-building reconciliation talks in Ireland, AIDS clinics, medical care in Vietnam, and myriad other causes. Anonymity allowed him to focus on the task at hand: giving away money and lots of it. Feeney once wrote, “I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t helping people.”
Then, in 1997, the New York Times ran the piece, “He Gave Away $600 Million, and No One Knew.” Now, everyone knew. Not only did everyone know, but some major donors today adopted his personal philosophy of giving while living. Feeney’s generosity inspired the Giving Pledge from Warren Buffett and Bill Gates in 2010. The pledge includes the promise to give away a vast percentage of one’s fortune, a promise Feeney had made to himself decades before.
Once Feeney’s identity was revealed, he decided to limit the lifetime of the foundation, a decision that echoed his commitment to giving to causes during his life. The foundation created a more formal grantmaking strategy to focus on giving to causes that needed immediate funding. After nearly 30 years of operating, Atlantic Philanthropies sunsetted in 2020, achieving Feeney’s goal of giving away his fortune.
Feeney embodied the American dream, starting from a working-class background to accumulating a fortune, and he gave along the same principles to Cornell. The Atlantic Philanthropies’s first gift to Cornell was $7 million to the “Cornell Tradition, an undergraduate fellowship program combining work, service, and scholarship opportunities to instill a strong work ethic in civic-minded students.” And the final grant in 2016 was another $7 million. In total, Atlantic Philanthropies gave nearly $41 million to the program amid $1 billion total to the university.
Cornell University described Feeney as the university’s “most generous donor,” but “generous” is an understatement. He gave $8 billion through Atlantic Philanthropies and inspired others to follow suit. Joanne Florino, a former program associate at Atlantic Philanthropies and now the Adam Meyerson distinguished fellow at the Philanthropy Roundtable, commented, “It was an honor to be a small part of Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies family in the early years of the organization. His personal humility and drive to maximize the impact of his gifts continue to inspire me.”
Feeney is survived by his wife, Helga Flaiz; his five children; 16 grandchildren; and the millions of lives improved through his generosity.
Rebecca Richards is the director of the Fund for Academic Renewal, the philanthropic advisory service of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on October 11, 2023.