Charles Francis Feeney was a billionaire. You might not know of him, but you may have visited one of his worldwide Duty Free Shoppers, stores he co-founded in 1960, or heard of General Atlantic, a private equity firm he founded in 1980 that now has $84 billion in assets under management. They helped him generate tremendous wealth which, at his earning peak, was reportedly $8 billion. A few years ago, he accomplished another tremendous goal: he gave it all away.
All but $2 million of Feeney’s wealth, which he held back for his and his wife’s retirement, has been funneled through his Atlantic Philanthropies collection of foundations. And he did it largely without the fanfare that many major donors make for themselves. (He’s been nicknamed “the James Bond of Philanthropy” for his worldwide anonymous giving.)
Feeney practiced “giving while living,” spending his life giving away his money rather than handing it off after his death. While there’s prudence in saving and investing, locking money away in trusts for future generations, we can all recognize there are many who need help now.
And beyond helping groups and individuals with direct donations, your philanthropic acts could be inspirational to others. Feeney’s story of giving reportedly influenced Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to launch the Giving Pledge, which they created to convince the world’s wealthiest people to give away half of their fortunes before their deaths. As of December 2021, it has 231 pledges.
But even through incredible, life-altering wealth, and now the celebration of his charity, the former billionaire has stayed humble. When a reporter from Forbes visited Feeney at his rented San Francisco apartment, he wrote that he found inside on a plain wooden table a small Lucite plaque recognizing the now-90-year-old Feeney’s tremendous accomplishment. It read simply: “Congratulations to Chuck Feeney for $8 billion of philanthropic giving.”
Maybe Feeney’s story can help you see your wealth in another way. Rather than asking how much you should donate, ask how much you really need to keep. It’s not necessary to reach Feeney’s level of wealth to give as he has. Whatever you’re able to do, consider how you’ll apply it to helping those around you. Sometimes just a small gift makes a big difference to someone in need. ●
Fred Koury is President and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc.