The man who put his money where his mouth is…and then some
Duty Free billionaire Chuck Feeney, whose grandmother came from Kinawley in Fermanagh, has given over £1.5 billion to Irish causes
Mr Feeney, whose Irish American parents endured the Great Depression, set up Atlantic Philathropies, to give away his fortune to good causes in his own lifetime
An Irish American philanthropist has written his last cheque after donating £5.8 billion to charitable causes worldwide, including over 25 per cent of it to organisations in Ireland. Chuck Feeney has been described as ‘doing more for the Irish than St Patrick’ as the modest entrepreneur has finally fulfilled his wish of giving away his whole fortune while still alive.
The 85-year-old New Jersey native amassed his fortune from selling perfume, tobacco and alcohol in his empire of duty-free shops in airports across the globe. He founded Atlantic Philanthropies which became one of the world’s largest private foundations as he led a frugal lifestyle, known for carrying his newspapers in a plastic carrier bag and for wearing a £8 Casio watch as ‘it tells the same time as a Rolex’.
And such was his humble nature, he gave away the first portion of his assets away in secret until 1997 when he was forced to reveal his identity after a business dispute. Not a homeowner, Feeney lives in rental accommodation in San Francisco and has a comparatively meagre £1.6 million left to live off of for his retirement with his wife Helga.
Every last penny
He instructed the foundation to dole out every last penny of his fortune before his death, telling the world’s second most wealthy man Warren Buffet that he hoped his last cheque would bounce. And recipients of his generosity, who stretch from Da Nang in Viet Nam to Donegal, have praised him wholeheartedly for the amount of work he has down to help science, education, conflict resolution, healthcare and civil rights across the globe.
And his last donation is his biggest yet; $600 million (£488m) to South Africa, Australia and the USA to bring forward 3,500 young leaders in the next few years who can lead the fight for equality, health issues and against racism. It was given at a ceremony in New York to his university, Cornell, in upstate New York, which was the recipient of his first donation in 1982. It brings his total charitable donations to 23 countries over five continents over the past 35 years.
The organisation’s Irish office opened in 1990 and since then the foundation has invested more than in $2bn in the country, mainly in educational projects.
At the end of 2014, the Irish organisation assets were worth €1.32m, and by the end of December 2015 its total net assets stood at €293,650. Atlantic Philanthropies still operates from bases in Bermuda, Ireland and the United States, but has closed its offices in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Vietnam and Australia.
Chief executive Christopher G Oechsli recently reported on the nearly $2bn invested in Ireland since 1990, including $21m in “advocating for and securing human rights in Northern Ireland.”
Feeney played a major role in the Irish peace process and was a key figure in brining about the IRA ceasefire. The foundation’s final Irish grants have focused on ensuring “the sustainability of key grantee organizations that will hold government accountable for providing services and meeting its commitments.”
The University of Limerick has been one of the foundation’s biggest beneficiaries. Feeney has invested nearly $180m across a range of fields at the university including research, medical and scientific innovation, athletics and student residences, and has also helped build several buildings at the school, including the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University Arena, and Glucksman Library.
The fund has also benefited other Irish universities including NUIG (€39.7m); UCC (€79.1m); DCU (€112.8m); Trinity College Dublin (€80.6m); UCD (€31.4m); NUI Maynooth (€29.3m); and Queen’s University Belfast (€116.8m).
The founding president of the University of Limerick, Dr Edward Walsh, has described Chuck Feeney as “the most remarkable man I have ever met.” Dr Walsh describes his first introduction to him in the late 1980s as “a wonderful stroke of good fortune”.
“It’s probably understating it to say that he is the most remarkable man I ever met – living modestly and yet encouraging others in a variety of ways,” he told the Limerick Leader. “At the height of the IRA atrocities, after the Enniskillen bombing, Chuck Feeney came to Ireland. He was horrified at what he had heard, and saw education as the means of creating a better future for Ireland.
“We had formed the Irish-American Partnership and received an anonymous gift. At the time, it seemed enormous – it was for £50,000 – and we were wondering who it was from. I met him, invited him down to Limerick.”
“Chuck Feeney will long be remembered as one of the greatest philanthropists of our lifetime,” said David Cronin, chief executive of the UL Foundation.
“The total figure gifted by AP to University of Limerick Foundation exceeds €170m and has been transformational to our campus, the city, our region, our country, our students and future generations,” said Mr Cronin. UL president Don Barry said that Feeney helped UL “to set greater goals than we could imagine for ourselves and to drive us on with the belief that anything is possible.
“Through his philanthropy the university has had the means to thrive and grow at a rapid rate,” he said, with the UL campus growing exponentially in physical size during Chuck’s involvement with UL.
“His deep commitment to the advancement and success of UL has led to the development of a young, energetic and enterprising university with a proud record of innovation in education, and excellence in research and scholarship,” said president Barry, who is due to step down this May when his ten-year term comes to a close.
He said that his generosity led to the development of “iconic projects such as the Living Bridge, the Glucksman Library and the Graduate Entry Medical School, to name just a few”.
“Through his phenomenal vision the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, established in 1994, has been developed into a world-renowned academy and a global centre of academic and performance excellence, enhancing UL’s role as a major centre of artistic and cultural creativity,” he concluded.
In 2012, UL joined with the eight other universities on the island of Ireland to honour philanthropist Feeney, with an honorary doctorate of laws – the first time such an honour has been conferred jointly by all the universities.
He also provided funding towards the €2m residence for the university’s president’s residence on campus, which was a source of controversy at the time and dubbed ‘lavish’ and ‘extravagant’. Milford Care Centre in Castletroy, which provides palliative care, and the Limerick-based support agency for all migrants in the Mid-West, Doras Luimni, have also been recipients from the former so-called “secret billionaire”.
Milford Care Centre received some €5.4m from Atlantic Philanthropies over a three-year period. Mary Immaculate College received €407,000 from Atlantic Philanthropies in 2001 for a project to address disruptive pupil behaviour in primary schools in disadvantaged areas.
In its 35-year lifetime, AP has invested €7.6 billion in philanthropy, much of it to construct university and hospital buildings and medical research facilities around the world, especially in the US, Ireland, Viet Nam, Australia and South Africa.