HomeTop StoriesCharles Feeney, philanthropist who gave away his billions, dies at 92

Charles Feeney, philanthropist who gave away his billions, dies at 92

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Sometime in the early 1980s, Charles Feeney took stock of what he had. He had luxury apartments in New York, London and Paris and posh getaways in Aspen and the French Riviera. He hobnobbed with the other mega-rich on yachts and private jets.

If he wanted it, he could afford it, after amassing a multibillion-dollar fortune as one of the first moguls in duty-free shopping. Gradually, though, he grew uneasy with having so much for himself and began to consider the obligations that came with great wealth.

He decided to give nearly all of it away — close to $8 billion — donation by donation, charity by charity, year after year.

“It’s much more fun to give while you are alive than to give when you are dead,” said Mr. Feeney, who died Oct. 9 at 92 at his home in San Francisco. It was a modest two-bedroom apartment.

“‘How much is rich?’” he replied to a query about his wealth in Conor O’Clery’s biography “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t” (2007). “‘Beyond all expectations. Beyond all deserving, so to speak. I just reached the conclusion with myself that money, buying boats and all the trimmings didn’t appeal to me.’”

Mr. Feeney’s decades of quiet philanthropy — nearly always bestowed anonymously — often attracted far less public attention than other major foundations and donors who have their names inscribed on places such as hospital wings and cultural venues. Yet the reach of Mr. Feeney’s “giving while living” was virtually unparalleled in its scope and diversity.

His donations spanned from public health facilities in Vietnam to humanitarian efforts in Haiti; clinics for HIV and AIDS patients in South Africa to nearly $1 billion for his alma mater, Cornell University.

In the 1990s, Mr. Feeney also played crucial behind-the-scenes roles in the Northern Ireland peace process, including serving as a conduit for both Protestant groups and Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

As peace talks were in danger of collapsing, Mr. Feeney appealed for the Clinton administration to overlook British objections and grant a U.S. visa to Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in 1994. The trip allowed Adams to hold landmark meetings and outreach in the United States alongside his negotiating partner, John Hume, head of Northern Ireland’s largest Catholic political faction. The Good Friday agreement, which helped end decades of sectarian violence, was reached in 1998.

Forbes magazine once dubbed Mr. Feeney the “James Bond of philanthropy.”

Mr. Feeney, who was widely known as Chuck, was so successful at dispersing his riches that the company he formed in 1982 to oversee the donations, Atlantic Philanthropies, wrapped up its work in 2016 with one last check to Cornell. Atlantic closed its doors for good in 2020. (Mr. Feeney set aside about $2 million for himself and his wife and arranged some income for his five children.)

Mr. Feeney also was open about the guilt factor he sought to rub in. His dig-deep giving, he hoped, set an example for “the others who have a jillion dollars” but keep it to themselves, he told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. Mr. Feeney liked to hand out an essay called “The Gospel of Wealth” written in 1889 by industrialist Andrew Carnegie on the worthiness of philanthropy.

Mr. Feeney was cited as an inspiration by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates as co-founders (along with Gates’s former wife Melinda Gates) of the Giving Pledge, a group encouraging others with vast wealth to contribute part of their fortunes to humanitarian and other causes. Last year, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (also owner of The Washington Post) said he planned to give away the bulk of his new worth during his lifetime.

Mr. Feeney often quoted a 19th-century proverb about using your money for good while alive: There are “no pockets in a shroud.”

Mr. Feeney began building his fortune as a Cornell graduate in hotel management looking for opportunities in Europe. In Barcelona, he met a fellow Cornell alumnus, Robert Miller, who was also seeking to make his mark. They formed a partnership in 1960 to sell duty-free items at Mediterranean ports — watches, perfume, liquor, cigarettes and other goods — to U.S. military personnel heading back to the States.

Their company, Duty Free Shoppers (later known as DFS), was the right niche at the right time. International air travel was steadily growing as jets replaced prop planes, and travel from the U.S. cities to Europe and other points became part of holiday aspirations. Mr. Feeney’s company, based in Hong Kong, expanded along with commercial air routes across Europe, Asia and South America.

The company’s massive profits were rolled into investments in hotels, property, retail and other industries. Mr. Feeney later bankrolled start-ups in the emerging tech sector. In 1984, he transferred a 38.75 percent stake in the company to Atlantic Philanthropies, which began its mission of benevolence with unusual guidelines for beneficiaries.

They were told only that the money came from a generous “client” who asked to remain anonymous. Those who learned about Mr. Feeney’s role were requested to keep it under wraps. The company was incorporated in Bermuda to avoid U.S. financial disclosure requirements, which would have revealed Mr. Feeney’s connections.

His work eventually became known in 1997 after he and his partner sold their interest in Duty Free Shoppers to the luxury products conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. Mr. Feeney’s donations included expanding programs at the University of Limerick and Trinity College in Ireland and aiding free surgeries to treat cleft lips and palates by the medical group Operation Smile.

“I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living, to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition,” Mr. Feeney wrote after signing the Giving Pledge backed by Buffett and the Gateses.

Mr. Feeney also reordered his own life beginning in the 1980s. He sold his limousine and took public transportation and cabs. He flew economy class — often carrying his books and papers in plastic bags — and only upgraded in his later years because of chronic knee problems, he said.

When in New York, he avoided pricey restaurants. He preferred the burgers at Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion on East 57th Street.

Charles Francis Feeney was born in Elizabeth, N.J., on April 23, 1931. His father was an insurance underwriter, and his mother was a nurse.

He served in the Air Force from 1949 to 1952 in roles such as radio operator during the Korean War. He enrolled in Cornell in 1952 — the first in his family to go to college — with financial support from the GI Bill and graduated in 1956 with a degree in hotel administration. His donations to Cornell included $350 million for a technology center on Roosevelt Island in New York.

His marriage to Danielle Morali-Daninos ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, the former Helga Flaiz; five children from his first marriage; and 16 grandchildren. The death was announced by Atlantic Philanthropies, but no cause was cited.

In recent years, he and his wife lived in a rented apartment in San Francisco. Mr. Feeney appeared to find comforting logic in simplicity.

“You can only wear one pair of pants at a time,” he said.

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