Chuck Feeney reaches lifetime goal: giving away a fortune
By Joe Wilensky
Charles F. “Chuck” Feeney ’56, founding chairman of The Atlantic Philanthropies, has finally reached a goal that was decades in the making: giving away his entire fortune during his lifetime.
Feeney, 89, who has been Cornell’s most generous donor, investing nearly $1 billion across the university over an almost four-decade span, spent down Atlantic’s coffers and formally dissolved the foundation in September.
His story is unique in that he and Atlantic gave away a total of about $8 billion for years, mostly anonymously – not just to Cornell, but to many universities, nonprofits and global causes focused on education, human rights, health equity, medical research, peacemaking and social justice.
And when Feeney became known as the philanthropist behind Atlantic and its donations, he remained personally frugal and humble – neither his name nor Atlantic’s appears on any university building, program or professorship – and used the sudden publicity and his own reticent fame to set an example and inspire others through his “giving while living” philosophy.
“Chuck has stayed true to his personal mission to thoughtfully devote all his wealth in his lifetime to help others,” said Chris Oechsli, CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies. “That has given him deep satisfaction.” Upon signing the dissolution papers for the foundation, Feeney’s simple message to others of means is: “Try it, you’ll like it.”
In 2011, Feeney’s generosity and ethos helped to inspire the Giving Pledge, created by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates with the aim of motivating the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit to giving away the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes and charitable organizations during their lifetimes.
Feeney purposely limited the lifespan of The Atlantic Philanthropies so it would make a difference sooner rather than later. The foundation made its last grants in 2016, doling out the last of those funding commitments this year before ceasing operations.
Atlantic’s very first investment in Cornell was an anonymous $7 million grant in 1982 to establish The Cornell Tradition, an undergraduate fellowship program combining work, service and scholarship opportunities to instill a strong work ethic in civic-minded students. The foundation subsequently gave nearly $41 million to The Cornell Tradition, supporting more than 6,000 students and, through student loan relief, enabling many of them to pursue careers in public service.
Symbolically coming full circle, one of Atlantic’s final official grants to Cornell was another $7 million to build the program’s endowment in 2016.
In between, the foundation nurtured a decades-long partnership with the university, supporting scholarship challenge campaigns; the construction of a dozen buildings, many on North and West campuses, helping to transform the undergraduate residential experience and building living-learning communities; athletics infrastructure, programs, and facilities; School of Hotel Administration and hospitality research support; the Presidential Research Scholars Program (later named for President Hunter R. Rawlings III); the Martin Y. Tang Welcome Center adjacent to Beebe Lake; and challenge grants to inspire alumni giving, including for endowed deanships, directorships, fellowships and faculty positions; and more.
Atlantic’s largest single investment in Cornell, and perhaps its most transformative gift, came in the form of a $350 million grant in 2011 – the largest-ever gift to the university and one of the largest in higher education history – to build the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City.
The grant played a deciding factor in Cornell’s winning New York City's competition to build a new graduate applied sciences and engineering campus in the city. It marked a historic moment for Cornell and was critical in allowing the university to begin all facets of the Cornell Tech’s development, from the first construction phase to the campus’ dedication in 2017, to its faculty and programs and to its continuing growth today – including a final $1 million grant earlier this year to jump-start its Public Interest Tech initiative.
Feeney, a native of Elizabeth, New Jersey, enrolled in Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration in 1952 with support from the G.I. Bill. He was the first in his Irish-American immigrant family to attend college. At Cornell, he began his entrepreneurial career, starting a sandwich business. Following graduation, he traveled to Europe, enrolled in a graduate program in political science at the University Grenoble in France and started a summer camp for children of American military personnel.
In 1960, Feeney and fellow Hotelie Robert W. Miller ’55 co-founded Duty Free Shoppers – at first selling to sailors serving with the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic fleet, then at Honolulu International Airport, and subsequently expanding to airports in Europe, Hong Kong and beyond. Duty Free Shoppers soon became the largest seller of luxury goods in the world.
In 1984, Feeney secretly gave away almost all of his fortune by transferring nearly his entire stake in Duty Free Shoppers (estimated at more than $500 million at the time) to Atlantic, reducing his own wealth to less than $5 million.
Feeney has been honored with a Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Philanthropy and the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy.