The Billionaire Who Found Joy In Giving Away His Fortune

Chuck Feeney, the Irish-American tycoon behind a duty-free shopping empire, has achieved his life’s mission: giving away his $8 billion fortune while he is still alive to witness the positive impact of his philanthropy.

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He doesn’t live in a mansion, own a Rolex or drive an expensive luxury car. Instead, he prefers to get around by cab, subway or walking. Even on international flights, he chooses to fly economy. 

But what makes Feeney truly unique isn’t his frugal lifestyle. It’s the fact that since the 1980s, he has been giving his wealth to humanitarian and educational causes worldwide. 

Once hailed as the 24th-richest American alive by Forbes, Feeney had a little secret up his sleeve. He had already transferred all his wealth to his foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies. It wasn’t until 1997, when he sold his duty-free interests, that he was finally “outed” as one of the greatest and most mysterious American philanthropists in modern times.

His goal was to improve the lives of people today, rather than waiting until he was gone to distribute his fortune.

For 38 years, Feeney endowed charities and universities worldwide with a “strive-for-zero” mindset to “give it all away," which he achieved. In 2020, he signed the dissolution papers for Atlantic Philanthropies, concluding his work.

His donations amount to $3.7 billion for education and another $870 million to fight for human rights and social change. He gave $62 million toward abolishing the death penalty in the United States and $76 million to support the passage of Obamacare. He also spent $350 million to turn New York City's Roosevelt Island into a technology hub.

He had set aside only $2 million to fund his and his wife's retirement, and now lives in a small apartment in San Francisco that Forbes describes as having “the austerity of a freshman dorm room.” 

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Feeney didn't come from money. He was raised in a working-class section of Elizabeth, New Jersey, during the Great Depression. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Feeney received a GI scholarship and enrolled at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, where his business acumen was first recognized.

Feeney’s desire for anonymity is rare in an era when people plaster their names on everything. But his selfless actions have finally been recognized in Conor O’Clery’s book, "The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing."

He also had a message for the ultra-wealthy who may have vowed to give away their wealth posthumously: “To those curious about Giving While Living: Give it a try, and you’ll be hooked.”

His challenge to the world's billionaires is simple: Use your wealth to make a positive impact. Instead of accumulating yachts and shoes, invest in causes that will benefit society as a whole.

It's a message echoed by other philanthropists, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who have pledged to give away the vast majority of their wealth to charitable causes.

Feeney's legacy is a testament to the power of giving while living. And who knows? It might just inspire the next generation of billionaires to follow in his footsteps.

Impact Investing

While Bill Gates is known for many things. Two of his largest and most well-known ventures are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Unlike Chuck Feeney, Gates has taken a more nuanced approach to philanthropy. Rather than simply donating money to specific causes or organizations looking to push an issue, Gates has largely been investing billions into companies he believes can make long-term changes if their goal is successful. For example, Breakthrough Energy Ventures is one of the largest investors in startups looking to impact climate change.

This method has even grown in popularity among retail investors in recent times. Platforms like StartEngine and Wefunder allow anyone to invest in startups, including investing in StartEngine itself. Wefunder describes their platform as allowing investors to buy “socially good lottery tickets” because the startups can have a big impact on society, and your wallet, if successful. But these types of investments are certainly risky as well.

See more on startup investing from Benzinga.

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