Shortly after I arrived as a new faculty member at the Hotel School at Cornell University, I was welcomed by Giuseppe Pezzotti, a legendary faculty member known for his warm hospitality. He stopped by my office with a thoughtful gesture: he shared a copy of The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing with me. This book not only introduced me to the remarkable story of Chuck Feeney but also offered lessons on philanthropy that have stayed with me.
The book chronicles the life of Chuck Feeney, a 1956 graduate of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. He made a fortune as the co-founder of the world’s largest duty-free retail chain. In 1984, Feeney secretly transferred all of his assets to a private foundation named Atlantic Philanthropies with the goal of giving away his wealth while living. The foundation’s name might not be familiar, but it was bigger than the Pew, Lilly, MacArthur, Rockefeller, and Mellon foundations.
Feeney, who died this year at age 92, accomplished his goal and gave away his fortune while he was alive.
As Feeney began to give his money away in the early 1980s, he read the literature on giving. Andrew Carnegie’s essay, Wealth, suggested “the best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise.” Feeney was also fond of Bernard Baruch’s words: “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
Mr. Feeney took those words to heart by contributing to causes around the world, and he acted anonymously until 1997, when a business dispute revealed he was the donor behind Atlantic Philanthropies. The foundation contributed $7 billion to support higher education, public health, human rights, and scientific research. He gave almost $1 billion to Cornell University, including a $350 million gift to establish Cornell Tech.
Inspiring the Next Generation
Feeney has also inspired the next generation of philanthropists. A dinner meeting in 2009 that included about a dozen ultra-wealthy philanthropists, led Warren Buffet, Melinda French Gates, and Bill Gates to establish the Giving Pledge — a promise by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to publicly commit to give the majority of their wealth to philanthropy either during their lifetimes or in their wills. To date the Giving Pledge includes 240 signatories from 29 different countries.
Bill Gates once said, “Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model, and the ultimate example of giving while living.” In 2014, Warren Buffett remarked, “He [Chuck] is my hero and Bill Gates’ hero — he should be everybody’s hero.”
Chuck Feeney’s impact extends beyond just inspiring the world’s richest; it also offers tangible lessons for each of us in our approach to giving, regardless of the scale of our resources. His
approach to philanthropy provide several lessons about giving:
Give Generously: Generosity isn’t measured by the size of a donation, but by the spirit behind it. Regardless of our means, we can all find ways to give to others.
Strategic Giving: Feeney was strategic in his philanthropy, focusing on causes that could create significant, long-lasting impacts, such as education, public health, and peace initiatives. By thoughtfully choosing causes that resonate with personal values and researching how our contributions can be most effective, we can ensure that even modest donations have a meaningful impact in areas we care about.
Give While Living: Feeney’s approach to philanthropy encourages the idea of seeing the impact of one’s contributions during their lifetime. If we actively engage with the causes we support, we can see the tangible difference our contributions make.
By embodying these principles, Feeney not only shaped his own legacy but also set a standard for future philanthropists. In his own words, Feeney encapsulates the essence of his giving philosophy: “I believe strongly in ‘giving while living.’ I see little reason to delay giving when so much good can be achieved through supporting worthwhile causes today. Besides, it's a lot more fun to give while you’re alive, than to give while you are dead.”