‘Giving while dead, you don’t feel anything. Also, if you give it away today, you can see what it is going to do and then you can rectify your mistakes. But more than that, I think you get satisfaction out of something that happens on your watch.’ Meet Charles ‘Chuck’ Feeney, the man who has lived by his words.
While we have heard of billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who are donating a huge chunk of their fortune for the needy, the name of Chuck Feeney is rarely on such lists. This is not because his efforts do not match up the work that is being done by Gates or Buffett; it is because this philanthropist believes in doing his good work quietly. What may also come as a shocker to many is that Chuck is a role model and hero for Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. While presenting Feeney with the Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Philanthropy this year in June, Buffett said that ‘Chuck is a true innovator and has set an example for anyone who wants to make the world a better place.’
The reclusive billionaire that he is, Chuck likes being under the radar. While many may not have heard of him until he was awarded this year, I am sure most of us know about the multi-billion dollar company he founded- Duty Free Shoppers (DFS). Surprised? Well, wait till you hear the rest of his story. Chuck Feeney is the man who built this immensely successful company, later sold it for billions to Louis Vuitton and since then has been using those billions to make the world a better place by establishing the Atlantic Philanthropies Foundation in 1982.
You may argue that many businessmen give away billions during their lifetime and Feeney is in no way unique. But the fact that makes Feeney’s story unusual is that despite the money he has, he has a lifestyle that is completely opposed to the way it should be. His mantra of life has always been frugality. He does not own a house or a car; he uses those owned by his foundation. He could have easily owned a fleet of private jets, but he says that ‘A private jet won’t get me where I want to go any faster.’ He wears a rubber Casio watch because it keeps time like a Rolex. He is one person who has chosen to remain ‘un-wealthy’. This is the reason that many of his close friends did not know about him being a billionaire until he featured in the Forbes magazine!!!!
Popularly known as the ‘billionaire who is trying to go broke’, Feeney does not believe that material well-being is important for living a happy life. He says that life is to be lived, not be shown. He jokingly says that ‘you don’t need much- you can’t wear more than one pair of shoes at a time.’ However, this does not imply that he restricts others from having what they want. He raised his children in huge mansions. Christopher Oechsli, the incumbent CEO of the Atlantic Foundation remembers an incident where Feeney sent him home on the Concorde because he understood that Oechsli must be home for the holidays in time.
Realizing that the greatest value for money is not always about having things for oneself, Feeney has led his foundation with the mission of creating equality. In order to achieve that, the Atlantic Foundation’s thrust has been on two areas- health and education. The foundation’s biggest investment in education is the $350 million aid to the Cornell University for building its Tech Campus. Feeney has also invested in the University of Western Cape after discovering that the researchers there were capable of ground-breaking research despite poor infrastructure. In an attempt to foster harmony, the foundation has encouraged efforts for shared education in Northern Ireland by supporting struggles for combined schooling of Catholics and Protestants. Atlantic has devoted resources in undertaking a project known as BenefitsCheckUp for evaluating the schemes to which senior citizens are entitled, which has led to almost $1.5 million older people receiving $7.5 billion in hitherto unclaimed government benefits.
Since Feeney believes in ‘finding opportunities to give opportunities’, he has worked a lot for the benefit of Vietnam in the aftermath of the war it fought by making sure that the children there are not deprived of education. Atlantic has funded learning resource centres in major Vietnamese universities and even re-constructed many schools and universities.
The foundation has also sponsored research and health facilities at the California University to enable it to undertake world-class research in cancer and provide healthcare to the underprivileged groups. It has also backed the $330 million Transnational Research Institute that is coming up in Australia for the discovery, development and testing of new biopharmaceuticals. This is tandem with Feeney’s philosophy that ‘good buildings with good minds can make a big difference to a lot of people’. The end is to develop human vaccines for diseases like dengue, establish neurological imaging facilities and provide skilled healthcare professionals to overcome the shortage that it is currently being experienced in many areas.
Recognizing that children need care and protection, Atlantic has contributed $130 million to early intervention programmes like counseling. It is also a big donor for Operation Smile, a foundation that provides free reconstructive surgery to children with facial deformities.
Apart from education and health, Feeney has also funded efforts to abolish the death penalty in the US by donating $23 million for the cause. The foundation has played a key role in the abolishment of death penalty in five states. Another area of investment by the foundation is immigration reforms, for which the foundation has spent a whopping $70 billion.
Since Feeney grew up with limited opportunities for progress, he has always been looking for opportunities so that they can be used for the good of those in need. Now 83 years old, Feeney has devoted his entire life trying to do something for others. What is remarkable is that he has not taken credit even for a single project that has been funded by his organization- no learning centre or hospital or research facility has ‘Chuck Feeney’ in its name. He always likes to stay in the background and does not prefer celebrating his achievements. As soon as one project is completed, he starts looking for another opportunity to work on.
Those close to him say that his greatest legacy is that he has made the rich people believe that ‘there are no pockets in a shroud.’ He deserves praise and applause because through his three-decade long journey, he has made considerable difference to the world and has persuaded people to ‘give while they live.’