A humble man who boasted not of his own achievements, but of those he helped.

By Hana Hong
September 25, 2020

Self-made billionaire Chuck Feeney had one main life goal: to die broke. 

Feeney comes from a working-class New Jersey family. The Irish-American grandson of immigrants amassed his fortune after co-founding the duty-free shopping empire Duty Free Shoppers. Despite his riches, he doesn’t own a car, rents a small apartment, flies economy class, and owns only one pair of shoes. He even crashes in his daughter's apartment while in New York. Instead of indulging himself, Feeney set up a foundation called The Atlantic Philanthropies in secret in 1982 and transferred almost all of his wealth into it. He made countless endowments to charities and universities across the world for 38 years. 

Chuck Feeney
| Credit: atlanticphilanthropies.org

Now, at the age of 89, he has finally run out of money and achieved his goal of “striving for zero...to give it all away.” Feeney became known as the “secret billionaire” because of his penchant for discretion, even while funding massive educational, medical, and philanthropic institutions throughout the U.S. and Ireland. Forbes even stated in 2012 that Feeney was “the man who arguably has done more for Ireland than anyone since Saint Patrick.”

Although Feeney always preferred flying under the radar, he continued to keep a low profile until 2005, when the opportunity came along to do some good with publicity. His work only came to light when journalist Conor O’Cleary wrote his biography with the goal of promoting ‘giving while living’ to other wealthy people.

His selfless nature has shocked other tech billionaires today, all of whom hail him as a notable role model. Bill Gates has said that Feeney was the inspiration behind both the $30 billion-strong Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Giving While Living Pledge, which has enlisted more than 90 of the world’s richest to grant their wealth to charity. 

Oechsli, who has worked for Feeney for more than 30 years, told The Guardian that although his boss had once tried to live a life of luxury, it didn’t really suit him. “He had nice places [homes] and nice things. He tried it on and it wasn’t for him,” Oeschsli said. “He doesn’t own a place, doesn’t own a car. The stories of his frugality are true: he does have a $10 Casio watch and carry his papers in a plastic bag. That is him. That’s what he felt comfortable with, and that’s really who Chuck has been.”

A true philanthropist, Feeney has also been known to call out those with untold wealth and urge them to give back to the community. He would scratch his head at people who owned multiple yachts when you can look around and see tremendous needs elsewhere. “What am I going to do with it [all the money],” Feeney said. “Like many of the wealthy people today they have [so much] money that they wouldn’t be able to spend it.”

As for where the estimated $8 billion went, Feeney has given more than $3.7 billion to higher education institutions, including almost $1 billion to Cornell University, where he studied hotel administration for free under the GI bill after service as a U.S. Air Force radio operator during the Korean war. Feeney has also donated $870 million to human rights groups, including $62 million in grants to groups campaigning to end the death penalty in the U.S., and $76 million to grassroots campaigns supporting the passage of Obamacare. 

Feeney said he hopes more billionaires will follow his example and use their money to help address the world’s biggest problems. “I have always empathised with people who have it tough in life,” Feeney told Ireland’s RTE in 2010. “And the world is full of people who don’t get enough to eat.”

As he signed the papers to formally dissolve his (now broke) foundation, Feeney said he was very satisfied with “completing this on my watch.” He urged other upper-class members not to wait until after they have died to experience the joy of giving away their fortunes. 

Billionaire or not, everyone can take something from his wise words: “Wealth brings responsibility. People must define themselves, or feel a responsibility to use some of their assets to improve the lives of their fellow humans, or else create intractable problems for future generations.”