We Can All Learn Some Humility from this Humble Philanthropist
Technical difficulties with Tuesday’s blog post put a bit of a damper on its publication. (Thank you, Sarah Cirelli of WS+B for finally getting it out!) Even so, I had a blast writing “Name That Philanthropist” and hope you enjoyed testing your knowledge of these generous folks, both past and present. To me, the super philanthropic community is a community of heroes and, commercial viability aside, it truly is worthy of its own series of Topps trading cards. Individual inspiration for significant giving is, of course, personal to the donor, as is the donor’s response to the kudos of others. Some prefer accolades to anonymity. Some revel at the thought of their name on the side of the building, others recoil. So be it. In my mind, whatever inspires a person to give is generally a good thing. Trying to understand the motivation is best left to professional fundraisers.
Now, for the riddle wrapped in the enigma – Charles Feeney, one of our showcased philanthropists earlier this week, is the decidedly downscale (former) billionaire next store. Once mistakenly listed as the 23rd richest American (Forbes 400, 1988), Chuck had, by that time, given away virtually everything to his private foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies. An article in today’s New York Times discusses Feeney’s approach to philanthropy and to life in general. He grew up in a working class family in Elizabeth, NJ, served in the Air Force and attended Cornell University on the G.I. Bill. He made his billions as the founder of the airport-based chain “Duty Free Shops” selling cigarettes and liquor to travelers “duty free.” He kept his philanthropic impulses fairly secret until 1997. In the last 10 years, he made a conscious decision to go a little bit more public in the hopes of inspiring some of his fellow one-percenters to share more of their fortunes. Most surprising to me, given Chuck’s general low key approach to life, is the fact that a biography had been written about him in 2007. The Billionaire Who Wasn’t is now on my required reading list.
According to the NYT article, Chuck lives in a building on a side street in Midtown Manhattan, buys his clothes off the rack (“I’m a shabby dresser”) and watches a television set “with the obvious girth of a model bought 20 years ago.” (Boy do I feel guilty coveting that latest flat screen…..) He has made “decent, though not extravagant, provisions for his four daughters and one son.” All of his children, apparently, worked through college as waiters, maids and cashiers. Talk about real family values!!
The Atlantic Philanthropies was founded in 1982 in Bermuda (for privacy purposes, of course) and is currently in the process of self liquidation. It has set the end of 2016 as its deadline for grantmaking. To date, it has have invested more than $6 billion around the world and has about $1.5 billion to go. Its causes are sweeping and profound and range from education to health to other social issues. More information can be found on its website.
Observation: In this world of conspicuous consumption, reality television, corrupt bankers and politicians, and general disregard for society “except as it impacts me,” Chuck Feeney is an unlikely inspiration and refreshing presence. I guess you can call him the “anti-Trump.” I look forward to reading The Billionaire Who Wasn’t and learning more about this remarkable man.