He Made $8B, Quietly Gave Almost All of It Away

Charles Feeney, who founded Atlantic Philanthropies, Duty Free Shoppers, dies at age 92
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 10, 2023 9:45 AM CDT
Updated Oct 14, 2023 1:15 PM CDT
He Made $8B, Quietly Gave Almost All of It Away
Charles Feeney, in a screenshot from "Secret Billionaire: The Chuck Feeney Story."   (YouTube/Atlantic Philanthropies)

Almost seven years ago, Charles Feeney achieved what the New York Times calls a "rarity in the philanthropic world": He managed to fulfill his promise to clear out the coffers of Atlantic Philosophies, the foundations group he founded in the '80s, and give away nearly all of his fortune. That final $7 million donation to Cornell University, where he'd gone to school, was the last of the almost $8 billion or so that he'd made and given away over the years, all so quietly that he was at one point dubbed the "secret billionaire." On Monday, the Irish American born into a working-class family in New Jersey, who amassed his wealth as a pioneer of duty-free shops but always doubted whether he deserved to have so much, died at the age of 92 in San Francisco.

Feeney, who co-founded Duty Free Shoppers (which was eventually sold to luxury goods conglomerate LVMH), gave anonymously to groups and individuals on five continents over the decades, including medical institutions, human rights organizations, science and peace initiatives, and universities, including his alma mater Cornell, which received nearly $1 billion from him since 1982, per CNN Business. He typically paid by cashier's checks so that his name wouldn't be tied to the donations. Feeney became uncomfortable with the trappings of great wealth, reverting back to flying coach and eschewing posh restaurants, limos, and elite social groups. He didn't own a home or vehicle in his last few decades and sported a $10 wristwatch.

"People used to ask me how I got my jollies, and I guess I'm happy when what I'm doing is helping people, and unhappy when what I'm doing isn't helping people," he told Forbes in 2012, per the Wall Street Journal. In the end, after most of his fortune had been donated, Feeney left himself with about $2 million, along with "decent but unextravagant provisions" for his five adult children, per the Times. In a death announcement, Atlantic Philanthropies noted that fellow billionaire Bill Gates had once called Feeney the "ultimate example of Giving While Living." Warren Buffett also had high praise for Feeney, telling Forbes in 2014 that Feeney was "my hero and Bill Gates' hero. He should be everybody's hero." Feeney is survived by his second wife, Helga Flaiz, with whom he shared a modest rented apartment in San Francisco; his five children from his first marriage; and 16 grandchildren. (More billionaires stories.)

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