Chuck Feeney will soon accomplish his life’s work. After years of sustained effort, he will finally go bust later this year.
The former billionaire’s Atlantic Philanthropies has been winding down since 2017, but its accounts are set to hit zero in September – bringing an end to almost four decades and $8 billion-worth of giving.
Christopher Oechsli, the charity’s chief executive, met with the financial officer last week and laughed at the realisation that they were about to run out of money.
“Usually this would be a crash, but we were sitting around the table thinking: ‘This is deeply satisfying’,” he said. “And I know Chuck will get a deep satisfaction when it hits zero.”
The money has had a transformative effect on Ireland in particular. The Irish-American businessman has concentrated the bulk of his foreign philanthropy here, donating $1.9 billion to higher education, peace process initiatives, public health, social groups and scientific research.
There are no libraries named after him and he does not give speeches calling on other wealthy people to follow in his footsteps. Instead, Feeney has let his money do the talking.
His philosophy of “giving while living” has inspired the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to ensure that their wealth is used to tackle the issues of today. It has led to Feeney being viewed as a modern-day saint by many, but Oechsli believes he should also be seen as a radical.
Feeney has always shielded himself from the limelight, rarely giving interviews and never having his name adorn the buildings he funds.
He has instead taken a hands-on approach to securing the social change he desires, including secretly meeting with Gerry Adams in the early 1990s as part of an effort to push for an IRA ceasefire and more political interaction with Sinn Féin by the Irish, British and American governments.
He has funded social groups in Ireland which have fought on divisive issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion access. Oechsli said that funding these initiatives was just as fundamental as Atlantic Philanthropies’ aims in medical research and higher education access.
“There is a lot of criticism of private money influencing social and public policy. I am aware of that and we are sensitive to that,” he said in an interview with the Business Post.
“It is a tough balance, because Chuck believes that wealth should not dictate social policy in a democratic society and yet on the other hand there are voices that are not heard, and don’t get to participate because of the way societies are structured.”
Oeschsli said that he was keen to stress that Atlantic Philanthropies does not have a political agenda, but it does reflect Feeney’s values.
“He wants to invest in people who are underappreciated, people whose dignity has not been recognised and where someone has been unfairly treated,” he said. The aim of Atlantic Philanthropies was “increasing the opportunities” for people.
In Ireland the fund has invested hundreds of millions into higher education – particularly the University of Limerick, which Feeney admired because of its “underdog” status.
It has also given more than €19 million to the HSE for dementia services and studies, €15 million to Barnardo’s children’s charity, €13 million to Free Legal Advice Centres, €12 million to community development in Tallaght, and €10 million to the Irish Hospice Foundation.
The range of grantees in Ireland reflects Atlantic Philanthropies’ aim of “revitalising higher education, transforming the design and delivery of services for children and older adults, and protecting and expanding human and civil rights for those marginalised in Irish society”.
Wearing threadbare blazers and a cheap Casio watch, and carrying items around in a plastic bag, Feeney is famously frugal.
When Warren Buffett presented him with an award in 2014, he called Feeney his hero and said that because he had only ever seen him wearing a $5 watch, he wanted to present him with a token of his appreciation: a $10 watch.
When asked about his timepiece, Feeney said: “Why do I need a Rolex when it tells the same time?”
The 88-year-old made his fortune with a string of duty-free shops, but always flies economy. His philanthropy was a secret for more than a decade after 1984, when he transferred his entire stake in Duty Free Shoppers to a foundation that grew into Atlantic Philanthropies.
The windfall from the booming business went straight to the charity, and it was only when Duty Free Shoppers was sold to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy in 1996 that Feeney revealed he was behind the fund.
While no money was going to his own fortune, Feeney operated business as usual: he travelled the world, expanding the Duty Free Shoppers empire for the benefit of his secret charity.
“I’m a competitive type of person, whether it’s playing a game of basketball or playing business games,” he told Forbes in 2012. “I don’t dislike money, but there’s only so much money you can use. People who have money have an obligation. I wouldn’t say I’m entitled to tell them what to do with it, but to use it wisely.”
Oechsli described Feeney as an entrepreneurial philanthropist – seeking to maximise the social return from his investments.
In Ireland he ensured that his investments in higher education were supported by funding commitments from the government. According to Atlantic Philanthropies, the donations of $226 million into Irish universities between 1987 and 2014 leveraged a further $1.3 billion of government money.
Having attended Cornell University on the GI Bill after fighting in the Korean War, Feeney came to believe that education is the single most important driver in delivering social change. To that end, Atlantic Philanthropies has given $3.8 billion to 250 universities – including $181 million to Limerick, $168 million to Trinity College, $132 million to Queen’s Belfast, $128 million to University College Dublin and $91 million to University College Cork.
Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has stated that without the “extraordinary” generosity of Feeney, the educational revolution that underpinned the Celtic Tiger could not have been possible.
Feeney has always insisted that no buildings are named after him in any institution he funds; if a university wants to honour him with a plaque, he asks that it is funded by a third party so that it does not deduct from the money spent on education.
Support for Sinn Féin
While much of the organisation’s work has been on politically neutral areas, Atlantic Philanthropies has also bankrolled groups in Ireland pushing for changes to women’s rights, abortion access, LGBT rights, children’s rights and immigration.
This led to accusations that American money was “buying” Irish referendums – a claim that was rejected by Atlantic Philanthropies on the grounds that Feeney is an Irish citizen and that any campaign groups funded were run by Irish people.
While he has always sought to keep Atlantic Philanthropies away from day-to-day political issues, Feeney’s personal support for Sinn Féin since the mid-1990s has led to criticism.
Oechsli said that, despite this, Atlantic Philanthropies “never bet on any side” in its funding for groups in the North during the peace process.
Feeney has also said that he ensured that none of his personal donations to Sinn Féin was used for any violence, and that he continued to fund their US office when the IRA broke its ceasefire in 1996 because he believed they would return to the peace process.
Feeney was part of a cohort of Irish-American businessmen who took it upon themselves to form a peace delegation seeking an IRA ceasefire, with the tacit implication that doing so would help Sinn Féin access the chequebooks of rich Americans with Irish roots.
The role of the Irish-American lobby in working towards peace in Northern Ireland is now well recognised and Atlantic Philanthropies has sought to cement peace by funding efforts to improve society in the North.
Mindful of Atlantic Philanthropies’ apolitical reputation, Feeney personally funded Sinn Féin’s Washington office with $720,000.
The foundation was criticised at one point by the unionist historian and writer Ruth Dudley Edwards, who argued that it was funding peace initiatives that were designed to be non-violent community initiatives but that some did not operate transparently with the Northern authorities.
Oechsli said that Feeney took a lot of flak for his early support for Sinn Féin in the 1990s, but that he truly believed the only way to achieve peace in Northern Ireland was to open dialogue and offer alternatives for communities to violence.
“It has never been a case of ‘This is a topic that Chuck is a political supporter of, so he’s just going to put money into it’. It is really where there is an opportunity to raise the level of social well-being and address issues of fairness, and to support the work in the North and in the Republic on conflict resolution. It was never about betting on any side, because investments were made across a range of participants in the conflict. It wasn’t about taking a political position, it was about solving a problem.”
As Atlantic Philanthropies has wound down, Feeney has sought to increase the fund’s work on the issue of the world’s ageing population.
In Ireland, the National Dementia Strategy was provided for by Atlantic Philanthropies and one of its final “big bets”, as Feeney calls long-term projects, was the $177 million investment in UC San Francisco and Trinity College Dublin to create the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI).
Oechsli said that the foundation has always sought to face big challenges; Feeney believes the growing numbers of people with dementia caused by an ageing population needed immediate action.
“It grew out of wanting to respond now to the demands that are going to be facing our society in future years,” Oechsli said of the dementia work. That same statement holds true for much of the work of Atlantic Philanthropies over its four decades.
While his foundation is in the final stages of winding down, Feeney has slowed down his own life considerably in the last ten years.
He rarely spent more than a week in one place for much of his working life and his philanthropy has required travel all over the world. Now he spends his time in San Francisco, in a rented bungalow. He still reads the newspapers every day and takes an active interest in Atlantic Philanthropies grantees.
“I would say he is retiring more than retired,” Oechsli said. “Frankly, it is not Chuck’s style to sit back and reflect on what he has done so much as to be engaged and try to do something. So most of his energy is still going towards doing something, rather than celebrating what has been done.”
The Centre for Public Inquiry controversy
Chuck Feeney was largely successful in steering away from controversy in his funding of social campaigns, but in 2005 Atlantic Philanthropies was forced to defund an organisation caught up in a high-profile row.
The Centre for Public Inquiry (CPI) was granted €4 million over five years to “investigate matters of public importance in Irish political, public and corporate life”.
The CPI was chaired by former High Court judge Fergus Flood. Its board was made up of Enda McDonagh of University College Cork; former Business Post editor Damien Kiberd; human rights lawyer Greg O’Neill; and deputy director of Unicef Ireland Thora Mackey.
The controversy which led to its defunding centred around investigative journalist Frank Connolly, who was executive director of the CPI.
The then justice minister, Michael McDowell, revealed that Garda files showed Connolly used a false passport to travel to Colombia in 2000 with his brother Niall – who was arrested in 2001 as one of the Colombia Three – and Pádraig Wilson, a senior IRA member.
After Connolly said the allegation was untrue, McDowell leaked a copy of a bogus application that was used to obtain the passport to Independent News & Media. It also emerged that the Director of Public Prosecutions had opted not to pursue the case in 2003.
McDowell claimed he was protecting the security of the state when he told the Dáil that Connolly had travelled to Colombia on a false passport.
Opposition politicians questioned McDowell’s actions, but Bertie Ahern said that Connolly had questions to answer and he stood by the justice minister.
Around this time McDowell also briefed Feeney, who then asked to meet Ahern about the issue.
At the meeting, Ahern said he did not believe that the CPI was a good idea and raised concerns about Connolly’s involvement.
Feeney hired investigators to check out McDowell’s claims, before the board of the CPI was asked to sack the journalist or lose Atlantic Philanthropies’ support.
Speaking in the documentary The Secret Billionaire, Feeney said he regretted not running more background checks on the CPI before agreeing to the funding.
The CPI ceased activities in April 2006. By then, about €800,000 of Feeney’s funds had been spent on two completed inquiries – an analysis of Shell’s gas pipeline in Mayo, and use of public funding to restore Trim Castle in Meath.
How Bezos compares to Feeney
The world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, announced last week that he would commit $10 billion to climate change research, an amount that accounts for about 7.5 per cent of his current net worth.
To put Atlantic Philanthropies in context, it is worth noting that Forbes has calculated that Chuck Feeney has given away 370,000 per cent of his net worth through the charity. This was because Feeney lived off a modest amount after transferring all his wealth into the foundation.
Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have credited Feeney with inspiring their campaign to encourage the world’s wealthiest people to use their money for philanthropy while still alive. In 2010 they launched the Giving Pledge, which asked the world’s wealthiest people to commit to giving at least half of their net worth to philanthropy. So far, 204 individuals or couples – including Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Michael Bloomberg and Larry Ellison – have signed up.
Speaking to his biographer Conor O’Clery in 2010, Feeney said: “I support it, but it doesn’t go far enough.”
Feeney’s own philosophy is that not just money, but a person’s skills and time, must be used as part of philanthropy. This, he believes, necessitates the limited life of any foundation, as the grants donated must have set goals and not just be in an undefined chase for a lofty aim.