Charles F Feeney, an American businessman and philanthropist
Image: Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Charles F Feeney, or Chuck, as he was better known, was a unique man—one who comes along perhaps once in century. In a deeply troubled world, filled with hate and suffering, where people are constantly looking for inspiration, he stood out as a beacon of compassion, hope and change, using his incredible entrepreneurial success and wealth to change the course of lives of tens of millions of people across multiple continents. Then why is it that he is not a common name? Not widely celebrated as both a remarkable wealth creator and perhaps the most incredible philanthropist of the last century?
Let me answer by beginning with my chance intersection with Chuck’s story over two decades ago. It was 2002, and I was running investment banking for DSP Merrill Lynch when we led what was then one of the largest PE deals in the country—a $100m investment by General Atlantic Partners in Patni Computers. When I met with Steve Denning, its then chairman and my friend Abhay Havaldar, its India Head, there were references to the sources of the money they managed—particularly one really large and respected individual. My colleagues in Merrill Lynch told me that the firm was blue chip, highly respected, and worked well with partner companies, particularly those in the tech sector. It was about six years later that Abhay Havaldar sent me a book called Billionaire Who Wasn’t, about their founder, Chuck, and told me that given my interest in philanthropy, “you will really enjoy reading this”. Little did I know that the story behind General Atlantic would unravel, and more importantly, it would be a book that would result in an inflection point in my wife Archana’s and my life.
The book gave insights into Chuck’s very humble Irish American background, followed by a US military stint, and his value system. It explained how he was co-founder, in 1960, of a brilliant idea—Duty Free Shoppers (DFS), along with a fellow Cornell alumnus, Robert Miller. Intended initially to simply sell duty-free luxury items to US servicemen, it rode the post WW2 boom in international tourism which created a surge in global demand for duty-free goods. Over the coming decades, DFS grew into a hugely profitable enterprise, and in 1980 Chuck founded General Atlantic Partners to plow some of its huge cash flows into high growth businesses and support entrepreneurs like himself.
Chuck’s wealth had by now begun to multiply rapidly with it. By the time he had hit the age of 50, he had palatial homes in major cities across US and Europe, and was leading the high life expected of most billionaires. However, something, given his very humble origins and value system, began troubling Chuck and started making him question his prevalent lifestyle. He is quoted in his biography as saying he reached the conclusion that all the trappings of luxury had simply stopped appealing to him. At that point, Chuck had begun to think about the value of hoarding or spending the money, versus giving it away and making an impact on society.
What followed was something truly remarkable—in 1982 Chuck established the Atlantic Philanthropies, and two years later, in a stunning move, he transferred his entire stake in DFS to it. Simultaneously, he gave up his billionaire lifestyle for an almost Gandhian way of life. He kept only about $2 million for himself and his wonderful wife Helga, and moved into a small rental in San Francisco, also giving each of his children just a house and a very modest amount of money. The rest of it ALL was reserved, much to the surprise of lawyers, friends, and family, for charity. Also read: Anurag Behar leads one of the world's largest philanthropic initiatives. What has it taught him about education in India?
DFS was ultimately bought by LVMH and with that and the investments in General Atlantic, Chuck had a LOT of money to give. However, Chuck was determined that the money be donated in what would ultimately become very unusual ways. He wanted to genuinely transform things; he wanted to actively participate in the process; he wanted to be extremely secretive and take no credit for his donations; and he wanted to make sure that the last dollar be given before he passed away. In fact, he was the pioneer of the ‘Giving while Living’ movement! So how did he do on these counts and is this the reason why so little is known of him?
Chuck eventually donated over a staggering $8 billion, nearly 100 percent of his wealth, and finished doing so about 2-3 years before he passed away! This made him one of the biggest philanthropists of our time, and he was perhaps the largest private donors to help with AIDs clinics in South Africa, fund surgeries for tens of thousands of children with deformities, transform public health facilities in Vietnam, build the higher education system of Ireland, make Cornell University into what it is today, and help with rescue efforts in Haiti in the aftermath of a terrible earthquake. In nearly all these cases he was personally very active and a hands-on participant in the process of solving the problem, and it’s fair to say that he was pivotal to the solution.
Nearly a third of his money was given to fund a staggering 1000+ buildings in Education, Science, Healthcare and other areas across Asia, Africa, Europe, and USA. In many cases, the institutions are what they are simply because of Chuck’s incredible generosity. However, unlike 99 percent+ donors, his name doesn’t appear on ANY of these buildings and in fact they were sworn to secrecy by the Atlantic Philanthropies. This is what earned him the nickname ‘James Bond of Philanthropy’ and resulted in so little being known about him despite the extraordinary scale of his giving across continents. Knowledge of his activities only became public on account of a public dispute with his former business partner, and he made no effort to propagate his work.
Chuck’s influence went well beyond his own giving. While he was one of the early signatories to the Giving Pledge in 2010, he stood tall amongst billionaires that they should donate rapidly during their lifetimes, and, importantly, proved that it is possible to do so in a sensible manner if one has the will. Warren Buffet famously said, “Chuck’s been a model for us all… he is my and Bill Gates’s hero.” His influence, however, went well beyond billionaires—on reading this biography, over 15 years ago, my wife Archana and I asked ourselves if we could emulate him in our own way. Not having “wealth”, we began a process to start giving away most of our annual income to causes we were passionate about, following his ‘Giving While Living’ principle. We have found the journey extremely enriching, and have selfishly got back a lot more than we have given.
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For many years now, I have acknowledged how grateful we are for what Chuck has done for humanity, and for inspiring us with his philosophy. In 2016 Archana and I had the first opportunity to meet with Helga and Chuck. They chose a café for rehabilitated convicts that he supported. Post our meet, we walked back to their rental apartment close by and got to see firsthand their spartan lifestyle. A year later I went back to speak at a rare ceremony to honour him in San Francisco, given he generally shunned awards. Each time, the man’s simplicity amazed me and I was struck by the fact that I was in the company of a man most extraordinary—one who had not only made a business we all knew of, but had given away a staggering $8 billion (or equivalent of Rs 64,000 crore in today’s currency) quietly, impacting tens of millions of lives.
On October 9, 2023, Chuck passed away. He famously said—“I have one idea that never changed in my mind. That you should use your wealth to help people.” Even though I met him when he was left with little, I know no other man who will ever be richer than him with goodwill and blessings when he died. In a lesson to those of us with privilege he said, “I strongly believe in giving while living,” and added, “I see little reason to delay it when worthwhile causes can be supported today.” In a world which so desperately needs hope, Chuck showed us the way with what is possible. That those of us who are blessed with wealth and power have the capacity to change the world. He showed that change is possible during our lifetime but that it requires more to live their lives just like he did—with purpose, simplicity and with urgency. Thank you, Chuck, for everything! (Amit Chandra, chairperson, Bain Capital India Office & Founder A.T.E. Chandra Foundation, is a humble follower of Chuck)