Businessman and philanthropist Chuck Feeney passed away on October 9th. He was best known for co-founding Duty-Free Shoppers (DFS) with Robert Miller in 1960.
DFS grew to be one of the world’s largest luxury retailers, catering primarily to travelers and making Feeney a billionaire in the process. However, what made him particularly notable and admired was not his business success but his unique approach to philanthropy.
He was deeply respected for his commitment to “giving while living” – something that resonates with me deeply as the fundamental purpose of Clayco is to impact communities positively. Feeney donated a substantial portion of his wealth to charitable causes during his lifetime and believed that wealthy individuals could make a more immediate impact by disbursing their funds sooner rather than upon death.
For many years, Feeney made his donations anonymously. He went to great lengths to keep his philanthropy secret, believing the causes were more important than personal recognition. In 1982, he secretly transferred almost all of his wealth to the Atlantic Philanthropies, a collection of private foundations. Over the years, this organization has given billions of dollars in grants to causes in education, health, science, and civil rights across various countries.
In 2020, Feeney achieved his lifetime ambition of giving away his entire multi-billion-dollar fortune to charity, effectively going from being a billionaire to nearly broke – by billionaire standards. This was a deliberate and planned effort on his part to ensure that his wealth was used for the betterment of society. This generous act embodies everything Feeney stood for and is a shining example of what so many leaders could be.
The biography The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune, by Conor O’Clery, details Feeney’s life journey, from his humble beginnings in New Jersey to becoming a billionaire, and eventually, his decision to give away the vast majority of his wealth. Feeney’s desire for secrecy in his charitable donations is a recurring theme, as he believed charitable acts were more meaningful without seeking public recognition.
Feeney’s philosophy and actions inspired others like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. He influenced the creation of The Giving Pledge, an initiative where billionaires pledge to give away most of their wealth during their lifetimes or in their wills. His selfless approach to wealth and deep commitment to making the world a better place earned him admiration and respect from many quarters. He was often described as the “James Bond of Philanthropy” because of his secretive donations and significant impact.
Feeney proved that true wealth is not in the accumulation but in the giving. For entrepreneurs and philanthropists alike, his life is a beacon, guiding us toward a path of purpose, generosity, and lasting impact. In his passing, we not only mourn the loss of an extraordinary individual but celebrate the enduring legacy he has left behind.