Friday, 6 January 2017

How Chuck Gave It All Away

We spoke yesterday about Ken Townsley, businessman and philanthropist who has dropped a fair chunk of his fortune on deserving causes in his home town of Blackpool. We've all heard stories of powerful figures bestowing their largesse on the needy, for reasons that run from common goodness to the need to appear generous while enjoying the tax benefits that charitable donations bring.

But up until very recently, the most generous donor of them all remained resolutely anonymous, choosing to let his money do the talking. Now, as The New York Times reports, Charles F. Feeney has finally come out of the shadows. The reason? His work is done. He's given away all but the tiniest fraction of a considerable fortune.

Charles' history reads like a slightly overheated airport blockbuster. A New Jersey boy, he served in the Air Force during WW2, before setting up a duty-free business to airports in 1960. That business would make him a billionaire. But Charles was never one for expensive living. As he put it, "you can only wear one pair of pants at a time." His tastes ran to burgers and a beer at his local pub, rather than fine dining in gilded restaurants.

And from the beginning, he knew what he wanted to do with his fortune. Consider: over the last forty years he has paid for over 1,000 buildings across five continents, including schools, hospitals and scientific research establishments. His network of charitable foundations has done an extraordinary amount of good, and given away an extraordinary amount of money. Charles F. Feeney is down to his last couple of million dollars, handing over a fortune–$8billion.

For Feeney, it was a no-brainer. That fortune, born from shrewd investments in scrappy little tech startups like Facebook, was there to do some good. His influence spreads far and wide. He advocated for legislation that would help to bring the Affordable Care Act into being, and secretly met with Northern Irish paramilitary groups, encouraging them to move towards peaceful means of discourse. His one key demand: that his name was kept quiet. He had no interest in the publicity, just the end game.

Now 85, Charles lives in a rented apartment in San Francisco with his wife. It's a quiet end to a remarkable life, and shows how philanthropy, when engaged in whole-heartedly, can make one hell of a difference.

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