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Irish-American former billionaire, Chuck Feeney, has been described as “the James Bond of Philanthropy” and “the best thing to happen to Ireland since St Patrick”. This week the 85-year-old’s philanthropic foundation made its last donation.

Feeney’s fortune came from flogging perfume, booze and tobacco in his empire of duty-free shops in airports across the globe. Rather than blowing his billions on finery, Feeney decided to donate it all away, and live up to the mantra of “giving while living”.

From rags to riches to modesty

After founding one of the world’s largest private foundations, Atlantic Philanthropies (AP), Feeney spent the next three decades doling out a hefty $8 billion (€7.7 billion) to a host of causes from DaNang, Vietnam to Donegal, Ireland.

Feeney, famed for his frugality and known for carrying newspapers in a plastic bag, wears a €9 Casio watch because “it tells the same time as a Rolex”. But when it comes to philanthropy Chuck Feeney has been a real spendthrift.

Where others might have been tempted to squirrel away a billion or two for a rainy day, Chuck went the whole hog. AP was instructed to dispense of his entire fortune before his death. He famously told fellow billionaire Warren Buffet that he hopes his “last cheque bounces” and it certainly looks to be going that way.

Feeney’s fortune is reported to now stand at a comparatively measly $2 million (€1.9million), he is not a homeowner and now lives in rental accommodation in San Francisco.

Atlantic Philanthropies has injected around €7.6 billion into education, conflict resolution, healthcare and health equality, science and civil rights. Feeney is also credited as having a pivotal, behind-the-scenes role in the Northern Ireland peace process. But unlike some philanthropists, who would have PR teams plaster newspapers with platitudes about their selflessness, he did his utmost to remain anonymous.

That was until 1996 when, after having already given €578 million anonymously, Feeney’s ex-business partners took him to court because he sold his shares to the luxury goods group Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy.

With the cat well and truly out of the bag, he decided to promote his ethos and bring other billionaires into the fold. The Gates Foundation was inspired by AP’s work and Warren Buffet has described Chuck Feeney as his “hero”.

Why give it all away?

The Atlantic Philanthropies website attributes Chuck Feeney’s generosity to his mother’s “charitable impulses” as well as an 1889 essay by Andrew Carnegie entitled “Wealth”. The essay suggests that true philanthropy with wise donations, is the best way for an advanced industrial society to promote equality and social justice.

It seems that the following statement formed an integral part of Feeney’s philosophy:

“This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: first, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community – the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren…”

The last cheques

Feeney’s Alma Mater, Cornell University was the first in a long line of benefactors and also one of the last. There, as a student on an army scholarship, Chuck sold sandwiches to make ends meet. And meet they did. Cornell University accepted AP’s grant for €6.7 million at a low-key ceremony in upstate New York last month.

The very last project AP will undertake is also the most costly at €577 million. The recently launched “Atlantic Fellows” scheme is said to be a response to the rise of populism and the election of Trump in particular. Its aim is to “support leaders committed to addressing systemic barriers to equality, opportunity and dignity” by fostering over 3,500 young leaders in the US, South Africa and Australia.

(Photo courtesy of Atlantic Philanthropies atlanticphilanthropies.org)

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