Chuck Feeney: Turning Selling Luxuries Into a Lifetime of Giving

Chuck Feeney: Turning Selling Luxuries Into a Lifetime of Giving

Chuck Feeney died last month. He was perhaps the most prolific philanthropist that no one ever heard of. That’s the way he wanted it.

Chuck Feeney wasn’t born into wealth, or into the best of times for the country’s economy. He was born in one of the greatest places in the country, Elizabeth, New Jersey, but it was 1931 so opportunity wasn’t knocking at every door. According to Atlantic Philanthropies, even as a child Chuck was an entrepreneur, selling Christmas cards door to door and shoveling snow.

Mr. Feeney spent four years serving our country as a radio operator for the U.S. Air force in Japan, but that was just the beginning of his service to our troops. This military service allowed Chuck, through the GI Bill, to attend Cornell University, where he became known as the sandwich man for a business he started. He also met his future partner in business, Robert W. Miller, in college. Cornell details these exploits on their website here, and lets us know how the business they founded, Duty Free Shoppers, started by selling to sailors serving with the U.S. Navy.

Most international travelers are familiar with duty free shops in airports at this point, but less likely to be familiar with just how successful they were. According to a Forbes article, in 1967 DFS paid dividends to Feeney of $12,000. Ten years later, the annual payout had grown to $12 million ($63 million in inflation-adjusted terms).

In 1984, Chuck Feeney decided what to do with the remarkable wealth he had created. He decided to give it away. The reason? He is quoted as say:

 “I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t helping people.”
– Chuck Feeney

He founded the Atlantic Philanthropies and transferred to it his entire stake in the DFS Group. This means that he placed approximately $500 million worth of value into the foundation while only keeping $5 million for himself. Not seeking notoriety, the foundation gave anonymously. One reason may have been that Chuck didn’t want others to donate less because they saw large donations already happening from his end, another might be that after his experience in radar operations he wanted to stay under the radar himself.

There are many things that set Chuck Feeney apart, and wanting to see the impact of his charitable work during his lifetime was one of them. While many philanthropists wish to create a legacy that will sustain itself in perpetuity, Chuck limited the lifespan of his charitable foundation, so that all the assets were dispersed and used by 2016. Over his lifetime Mr. Feeney gave away over $8 billion to organizations across the globe, in many different categories of giving, including higher education, medical research, social justice, peacemaking, human equity and rights and others.

He may have been the inspiration for Warren Buffet’s giving pledge as well, who is quoted as saying of him –

“Chuck has set an example…he is my hero and Bill Gates’ hero. He should be everybody’s hero.”
– Warren Buffett

Warren presented him with the Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Philanthropy in 2014. When considering how his selfless example has inspired others to take the giving pledge, it’s clear he has created a legacy and momentum in charitable support that won’t end with his passing.

If you are considering substantial giving and following in Chuck Feeney’s footsteps by becoming a philanthropist, let us know. The professionals at Garden State Trust company specialize in helping people achieve their charitable goals through charitable trusts, and we would be pleased to share more information about how these trusts can benefit family members as well as charities. We would be very pleased to be a part of any story that involves improving the world and our communities.

Please consider sharing this and other veteran’s stories as we spend the day reflecting on how we can commemorate and celebrate our heroes.