By Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2007)
On January 22, 1997, from a payphone in the San Francisco airport, Chuck Feeney gave The New York Times a story for the ages. Although he had appeared regularly on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans, Feeney was not, he revealed, the billionaire everyone presumed. This kid-done-good from Elizabeth, New Jersey—a Horatio Alger boy on steroids—had indeed built a great fortune by mastering the duty-free trade. But the recent sale of his company, Duty Free Shoppers (DFS), had forced Feeney to confess his great secret: he had given this fortune away. In The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing, Irish journalist Conor O’Clery chronicles how Feeney quietly amassed astonishing wealth, and, with equal stealth, signed it all over to his philanthropic foundations.
O’Clery’s account reads like a spy novel. Feeney and his business partners succeed through cloak and dagger secrecy: closed bids for duty-free concessions (Hawaii, Guam, Alaska, Hong Kong), off-shore havens to shelter their cash profits from U.S. taxation. Feeney’s commercial savvy is also characterized by an uncanny intuition for profitable opportunities, a penchant for shop-floor management (well into his later years, Feeney is coaching the sales force), and remarkable care for employees and their families. These traits also underpin his philanthropy, which is characterized by fierce anonymity, opportunistic giving that seeks to amplify the power of his philanthropic buck (in places ranging from the U.S. to Ireland, South Africa to Australia, Vietnam to Cuba), and extensive vetting (“kicking the tires”) of potential grantees. Ultimately, Feeney says, he is driven by a basic desire to help others, learned at a young age from his parents.
Feeney’s is an extraordinary tale of entrepreneurial dynamism, no doubt—but even more of unusual beneficence. His “outing” presents a number of important challenges. First, Feeney embodies “inter vivos” charity—giving while living. This is significant in an era when, for many, wealth serves as a competitive “scorecard” (Feeney’s words) for success. In offering an equally competitive, alternative yardstick—charitable largesse—Feeney joins Gates, Buffett, and others in harnessing new resources for the disadvantaged. The second challenge Feeney poses is to the philanthropic sector, where foundations typically expend five percent of their assets each year. Feeney has called for a full spend-down of his Atlantic Philanthropies within the decade: inter vivos in extremis. Though to date his foundations have granted nearly $4 billion to “vulnerable” people around the world, nearly $4 billion in assets remain. This means trying to give away—efficiently, effectively, entirely—about one million dollars a day. “Spending it,” he says, “is not a big problem. Spending it meaningfully is.” Understatement, ambition and optimism: vintage Feeney.
Georgia Levenson Keohane is a writer and consultant in the fields of social policy, philanthropy, and non-profit management. She lives in New York City.