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Friday, October 23, 2020

Explained: Why DFS founder Chuck Feeney is called the James Bond of Philanthropy

Feeney is known to travel on economy class tickets and is said to carry important papers in a plastic bag. His foundation completed grantmaking in 2016, after which Feeney was left with a little more than $2 million.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: September 22, 2020 9:18:44 am
Chuck Feeney, dfs founder chuck feeney, james bond of philanthropy chuck feeney, us philanthropist chuck feeny,Christopher Oechsli, left, president and chief executive of Atlantic Philanthropies, with founder Chuck Feeney in San Francisco (File/Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

Billionaire philanthropist Chuck Feeney, who co-founded a chain of duty-free shops in the 1960s, has managed to give away his fortune amounting to over $8 billion, with the foundation he set up running out of money this week. Feeney, 89, pioneered the idea of “Giving While Living” and has maintained that “it’s a lot more fun to give while you’re alive, than to give while you’re dead”. It has taken all of 38 years for his foundation to run out of funds.

Feeney is known to travel on economy class tickets and is said to carry important papers in a plastic bag. His foundation completed grantmaking in 2016, after which Feeney was left with a little more than $2 million.

Who is Chuck Feeney?

Feeney was born in New Jersey in 1931 into an Irish-American community, during the Great Depression. As per the documentary “Secret Billionaire: The Chuck Feeney Story”, Feeney joined the Air Force after leaving school and was stationed in Japan as a radio operator during the Korean War.

After his military service, he continued his education at Cornell University and became the first member of his family to attend college. While looking to make money during his time at Cornell, Feeney started selling sandwiches. Harvey Dale, his friend and lawyer said in the documentary, “I thought he was selling sandwiches with too much bread and too little peanut butter, he was clearly an entrepreneur.”

In 1960, he co-founded the retail giant the Duty-Free Shoppers (DFS) group in Hong Kong along with Robert Miller. In 1961-62, DFS opened the first duty free shop in the US at the Honolulu International Airport after which business rapidly expanded.

In 1982, Feeney secretly set up the Atlantic Foundation. He transferred most of his wealth to this foundation, which later came to be known as Atlantic Philanthropies. His philanthropic efforts have supported higher education, human rights groups and campaigns that supported Obamacare. He has also donated more than a billion dollars to projects in Northern Ireland as well as the Republic of Ireland and was instrumental in the setting up of the University of Limerick in 1989.

Until 1996, his involvement with the foundation was not revealed since Feeney wanted to remain anonymous. In that year, when he sold his stake at DFS to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), a disagreement with his DFS partners led the deal to the courts, because of which his identity was revealed. In January 1997, The New York Times ran a story on Feeney titled, “He Gave Away $600 Million, and No One Knew”, in which, “after years of secrecy”, Feeney talked about his philanthropic efforts and said, “It (money) doesn’t drive my life. I’m a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy.”

This is why in 2012 Forbes magazine chose to call him the “James Bond of Philanthropy”.

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On September 14, Feeney signed the dissolution papers for the Atlantic Foundation. As per The New York Times, no major American philanthropist has given as much wealth as Feeney.

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