Chuck Feeney: the Trailblazer

In memory of his leadership on the transformative power of selfless giving
November 21, 2023
Will Richardson

On 9 October 2023, the world lost Chuck Feeney. It is common to admire and worship self-made entrepreneurs, and Chuck fits that mould. However, what is far more worthy of celebration, is that Chuck was a trailblazer who saw through the bluff and bluster of wealth, fame and its trappings for something far more meaningful.

Who was Chuck Feeny? Chuck was born during the Great Depression to blue-collar Irish-American parents in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He co-founded the Duty Free Shoppers Group in 1960 and over the decades amassed an $8 billion fortune. While impressive, it was his decisions on what to do with that fortune that haves made him a legend.

In 1982, Chuck set up Atlantic Philanthropies, a private foundation, focused on the service of humanity. He recognised the transformative power of education, research and social equity and supported causes in Australia, Bermuda, Ireland, South Africa, United States and Vietnam. He committed to give the entirety of the wealth away and also to spend it down before he died -- he wasn’t interested in the Foundation staying in existence in perpetuity. His dream was for the money to serve humanity, rather than allow the fortune to be invested and grow and potentially only one day make a difference. 

Chuck was not a virtue signaler nor did not seek his name on hospitals, he didn’t want to be a special VIP guest at fancy opening ceremonies, or to be named in newspaper articles. For over a decade, Atlantic Philanthropies distributed millions of dollars anonymously. Then, only when forced to by a business dispute in 1997, did Feeney disclose his funding for the Foundation. With his identity now known, in 2005, Chuck Feeny sanctioned a biography titled Giving While Living – it was an opportunity to inspire young entrepreneurs and other wealthy individuals to follow suit and donate their wealth to worthy causes. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet credit Chuck Feeny for inspiring them to act and make commitments to give away their fortunes.

Chuck Feeney's approach to philanthropy was game-changing and unprecedented. His decision to be anonymous for decades and later reveal his identity when he believed it could inspire others showcases his strategic and visionary thinking. Feeney demonstrated that philanthropy is not merely about writing checks; it is about leveraging one's resources to create meaningful, sustainable impact.

Feeney's legacy is a testament to the transformative power of selfless giving and the ability of one individual to inspire a movement. His story challenges us to think beyond personal accumulation and consider the profound impact we can have on the world when we prioritise the well-being of others. Chuck Feeney's life serves as a shining example of how true success is measured not by wealth amassed, but by the positive change one brings to the lives of others.

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