Charles “Chuck” Feeney, 89, who cofounded airport retailer Duty Free Shoppers with Robert Miller in 1960, amassed billions while living a life of monklike frugality. As a philanthropist, he pioneered the idea of Giving While Living—spending most of your fortune on big, hands-on charity bets instead of funding a foundation upon death. Since you can’t take it with you—why not give it all away, have control of where it goes and see the results with your own eyes?
“We learned a lot. We would do some things differently, but I am very satisfied. I feel very good about completing this on my watch,” Feeney tells Forbes. “My thanks to all who joined us on this journey. And to those wondering about Giving While Living: Try it, you’ll like it.”
Over the last four decades, Feeney has donated more than $8 billion to charities, universities and foundations worldwide through his foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies. When I first met him in 2012, he estimated he had set aside about $2 million for his and his wife’s retirement. In other words, he’s given away 375,000% more money than his current net worth. And he gave it away anonymously. While many wealthy philanthropists enlist an army of publicists to trumpet their donations, Feeney went to great lengths to keep his gifts secret. Because of his clandestine, globe-trotting philanthropy campaign, Forbes called him the James Bond of Philanthropy.
Chuck Feeney and Warren Buffett in 2011 ©BILL & MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION/BARBARA KINNEY
But Feeney has come in from the cold. The man who amassed a fortune selling luxury goods to tourists, and later launched private equity powerhouse General Atlantic, lives in an apartment in San Francisco that has the austerity of a freshman dorm room. When I visited a few years ago, inkjet-printed photos of friends and family hung from the walls over a plain, wooden table. On the table sat a small Lucite plaque that read: “Congratulations to Chuck Feeney for $8 billion of philanthropic giving.”