You've heard of Warren Buffet, and Bill and Melinda Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. You might have never heard of Chuck Feeney, and that's the way he likes it.
The billionaire who built a fortune of more than $7 billion selling perfume and rum in duty-free shops has been called "secretive" and "frugal." He's known for wearing a $15 watch. But Feeney is the first and perhaps the most extreme philanthropic billionaire. He started his foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, three decades ago with the directive to spend his entire fortune before he died.
Feeney is now 83, and his foundation is shutting its doors at the end of the year, after which it will operate on a skeleton crew until it winds down: Feeney's fortune has been spent.
Atlantic Philanthropies made one of its last donations a few weeks ago to Northern Ireland, where the money will go toward shared education for Protestant and Catholic kids, parenting programs, and dementia care. Feeney has donated millions to schools in Ireland, where the University of Limerick, which hosts 12,000 students, was built on $170 million from Feeney's foundation.
Martin McGuinness, the Northern Ireland deputy first minister, told the Independent that the latest grants were part of a "colossal contribution."
“These projects will have a significant impact on the quality of people’s lives, now, and for years to come. The legacy will be a brighter future for the most vulnerable people in our community," said McGuinnes.
Feeney was born to Catholic-Irish migrants and raised in New Jersey during the Depression in humble circumstances. His foundation has channeled more than $6 billion into education, science, health care and civil rights from the U.S. to Australia, Vietnam, South Africa and Ireland.
His method is sort of an extreme, big-impact philanthropy, where he "throws big money at big problems" — such as updating Vietnam's health care system, creating new schools in Ireland, or forking over $350 million to turn New York's Roosevelt Island into a tech hub — rather than setting up a legacy trust that metes out small amounts for decades after he's gone, or handing over a tremendous fortune to a handful of heirs.
“Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model,” Bill Gates told Forbes, “and the ultimate example of giving while living.” Gates and Warren Buffett have plans to dispense their own fortunes to charities within their lifetimes.
Feeney is known for saying that his goal is to die with an empty bank account. “I want the last check I write to bounce," Feeney has said.
Speaking in 2007, he said: “I had one idea that never changed in my mind: that you should use your wealth to help people.”