Chuck Feeney: The Irish-American billionaire who wanted to die broke... and did

Tributes have been paid to Irish-American philanthropist Chuck Feeney following his death at the age of 92

Chuck Feeney

Tributes have been paid to Charles “Chuck” Feeney, the Irish-American philanthropist, following his death at the age of 92.

He died peacefully at his home in San Francisco on Monday.

Born in New Jersey, Mr Feeney founded The Atlantic Philanthropies, which donated around £465 million to causes in Northern Ireland over the years.

With a family lineage traced back to the village of Kinawley in Co Fermanagh, Mr Feeney made his fortune selling luxury duty-free goods before creating his foundation in 1982.

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As a philanthropist, he pioneered the idea of Giving While Living. Over the last four decades, Mr Feeney has donated more than $8 billion to charities, universities and foundations worldwide through his foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies. Because of his often clandestine, global philanthropy campaign, Forbes Magazine called him the “James Bond of Philanthropy”.

On September 14, 2020, Mr Feeney completed his four-decade mission and closed Atlantic Philanthropies. The closure date had been set years ago as part of a long-term plan to make “high-risk, high-impact donations by setting a hard deadline to give away all his money and close shop, according to Forbes.

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A staunch supporter of integrated education in the north, the foundation gifted £8m to the Integrated Education Fund in 1991, while Queens University Belfast also received grants of more than £100m.

Mr Feeney also funded the Sinn Féin office in Washington following the IRA ceasefire in 1994.

In the Republic, the organisation donated €150m to the University of Limerick’s UL Foundation charity.

‘Extraordinary generosity’

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill and Tanaiste Micheal Martin were among those who paid tribute after Mr Feeney’s death was announced.

Ms O’Neill said: “Chuck Feeney will be remembered fondly across Ireland as a man who made a generous and very important contribution to the development of the peace process.

“He will also be remembered for his financial philanthropy in the areas of health, education, research and community grassroots peace-building and rights activism.

“Without the selfless intervention of Chuck Feeney many areas of vital work on the island of Ireland at community and institutional levels simply would not be in the advanced state they are today, and for which we are all eternally grateful.”

Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Ireland civil service, paid tribute to Mr Feeney on social media.

She said: “So very sorry to hear of the passing of Chuck Feeney, whose philanthropy changed the lives of so many people here.

“His investment underpinned research which led to leading-edge clusters, delivering many high-value jobs.

“A genuine inspiration whose legacy is immense.”

Mr Martin said Mr Feeney’s generosity was “inspirational”.

Chuck Feeney

He said: “Chuck Feeney’s extraordinary generosity, selflessness and his philanthropic legacy have transformed the lives of people on the island of Ireland, north and south, young and old.

“He was a pioneer in the world of philanthropy.

“Chuck’s support for education and reconciliation projects on this island delivered real and measurable change, and their impact endures and will continue to do so.”

‘Chuck Feeney is a good hero to have’

When Forbes interviewed him in late 2020, Mr Feeney was described as living in an apartment in San Francisco that had “the austerity of a freshman dorm room.”

His generosity was said to have influenced Bill Gates and Warren Buffett when they launched the Giving Pledge in 2010—a campaign to convince the world’s wealthiest to give away at least half their fortunes before their deaths.

“Chuck was a cornerstone in terms of inspiration for the Giving Pledge,” said Warren Buffett. Chairman & CEO Berkshire Hathaway, The Gates Foundation, The Giving Pledge. “He’s a model for us all. It’s going to take me 12 years after my death to get done what he’s doing within his lifetime.”

He added: “If you have the right heroes in life, you’re 90% of the way home. Chuck Feeney is a good hero to have.”

President and CEO of Atlantic Philathropies, Christopher G Oechsli, said of Mr Feeney: “He cared more about being effective at what he did than about amassing wealth or collecting awards.

“In philanthropy, that meant being present and engaged in an unassuming manner with the people and their work who, with his support, could improve the lives of others in meaningful and lasting ways.”

‘Extraordinary human being whose kindness and vision brought hope and joy to millions’

Tánaiste Micheál Martin said: “Chuck made it his ‘life-long ambition’ to give away his fortune during his lifetime, with over $1.5 billion invested on the island of Ireland.

“His incredible generosity was and is inspirational, impacting on both sides of the Atlantic over almost four decades.

“This support is still making a difference to lives right across this island today.”

Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said Mr Feeney was an “extraordinary human being whose kindness and vision brought hope and joy to millions”.

“Through Atlantic Philanthropies he gave away billions to those working in the field of civil liberties, health, community development and education,” he said.

University of Limerick’s president, Professor Kerstin Mey, said: “I speak on behalf of the entire University of Limerick community past and present in expressing our sorrow at the loss of one of the most giving of men in Chuck Feeney”.

‘Truly extraordinary legacy’

She added: “I want to offer my sympathy on behalf of the institution to his family and to celebrate a truly extraordinary legacy that he leaves behind as an inspiration to all.”

The university named a thoroughfare on its campus ‘Feeney Way’ in honour of the philanthropist earlier this year.

Universities across the island of Ireland recognised his contribution to education in Ireland in 2012 by jointly giving him an honorary doctorate of law. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal for Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.

“Along with the late Bill Flynn, Bruce Morrison, Joe Jamison and Niall O’Dowd, Chuck Feeney was part of the Connolly House group which played a pivotal role in creating the conditions for the peace process.

“In the decades since then Chuck has remained steadfast and committed to the Irish peace process.

“Chuck was one of the most remarkable men I have ever met.

“A very private man who has always shunned the spotlight and who was totally committed to our efforts to build peace.”

It wasn’t just Northern Ireland that benefited. He also gave money towards modernising Vietnam’s health care system and spending $350 million to turn New York’s long-neglected Roosevelt Island into a technology hub. He didn’t wait to grant gifts after death or set up a legacy fund. He identified causes where he could have an impact and went all-in.

Mr Feeney described his mission in a few sentences. “I see little reason to delay giving when so much good can be achieved through supporting worthwhile causes. Besides, it’s a lot more fun to give while you live than give while you’re dead.”