“A good way to judge a man is by what he says. A better way to judge a man is by what he does. The best way to judge a man is by what he gives.” John Mason
November 1982 – Duty Free Shoppers Headquarters, Ridgefield, Connecticut: Charles Feeney had everything that money could buy, luxury apartments in New York, London and Paris and posh getaways in Aspen and the French Riviera. He had it all but then realized that it wasn’t enough. He discovered that money didn’t make him happy, helping others did.
On this cold, gray November morning, Feeney’s attorneys asked him for the umpteenth time, “Charles, do you really want to go through with this? You know when the documents are signed that they are irrevocable? You can’t get your money back. You have covered all this with Helga, right?” Feeney was adamant. “Yes! Let’s get on with it.”
He grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey, during the Depression. His father was an insurance underwriter, and his mother worked as a nurse and volunteered nights with the Red Cross. The family struggled to make the $30 per month mortgage on their small house. Young Feeney always had an affinity for making money. As a child, he sold Christmas cards door-to-door, shoveled snow, mowed grass and was a caddy at the golf course.
After high school, Feeney joined the Air Force and served as a radio operator during the Korean War. He used the G.I. Bill to earn a degree in hotel management from Cornell University in 1956. A couple of years later, Feeney and a Cornell classmate, Robert Miller, began selling duty-free liquor, cigarettes and perfume to American soldiers returning from Europe. In 1960, they founded Duty Free Shoppers (DFS) and quickly expanded the business to include commercial airport sales of watches, jewelry and other luxury products.
During the next two decades, DFS became the world’s largest duty-free retail chain, making Charles Feeney a billionaire. A product of his New Jersey blue-collar upbringing, he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the opulent lifestyle of black-tie dinners, yachts, fine restaurants and lavish homes. He shunned public attention and recognition.
Influenced by his mother’s example of kindness and caring for others, Feeney began to secretly give his money away. He sold his limousines and took subways and cabs. Rather than first class, Feeney flew coach. He began to sell his homes.
In the November 1982 meeting with his attorneys at DFS headquarters, Feeney founded Atlantic Philanthropies, a collection of private foundations. He secretly transferred his assets and most of his vast wealth, including his 39% share of DFS to the foundations. His goal was to give all his fortune away by 2020, the anticipated time of death at age 90.
In 1988, Forbes Magazine embarrassed Feeney when they named him the 23rd richest American with a net worth of $1.3 billion. However, it was not true because the business tycoon had placed most of his wealth in the Atlantic foundations six years earlier.
Feeney remained anonymous for the first 15 years of Atlantic’s grantmaking. He anonymously funded hospitals and universities from San Francisco to New York to Barcelona to Brisbane. Proud of his Irish heritage, he founded Trinity College and the University of Limerick in Ireland. He gave a billion dollars to Cornell and established AIDS clinics in South Africa. Other donations created a public health system in Vietnam.
Over three decades, Atlantic Philanthropies donated $2.7 billion to erect more than 1,000 buildings on five continents. Feeney’s name never appeared on a single one. His beneficiaries were required not to divulge the source of their funds.
Over almost four decades, Charles Feeney gave away $8 billion through his foundations. His remaining net worth was roughly $2 million, a small fraction of his great wealth. He and his wife, Helga, lived in a small, rented apartment in San Francisco. He bought his clothes off the rack, wore a $15 Casio watch and drove a 20-year-old Jaguar.
Inspired by Feeney’s incredible generosity, two of the wealthiest men in the world, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, created the Giving Pledge in 2010. It is an invitation for billionaires to commit to donate most of their wealth to philanthropic causes during their lifetimes or in their wills. So far 236 billionaires have signed up. “I had one idea which never changed,” said Charles Feeney before his death at age 92 in October 2023, “that you should use your wealth to help people.”