Development & Alumni Relations Office 

GIVING IT ALL AWAY – THE ULTIMATE PHILANTHROPIST  Chuck Feeney - The Atlantic Philanthropies (in colour and black and white)

29 September 2020

After 38 years, Irish-American billionaire Charles Francis (Chuck) Feeney has achieved his lifetime ambition of giving away his estimated fortune of £6bn – including considerable sums to Queen’s – while he is still alive to see it.

On 14 September, his vision of ‘giving while living’ formally came to a celebrated end when the foundation he set up to distribute his wealth – The Atlantic Philanthropies – completed its mission and closed it doors.  

Universities on the island of Ireland to benefit from Chuck Feeney’s philanthropy over the years include the University of Limerick, Trinity College Dublin, along with Cork and Galway universities.

Gifts through the Queen’s University of Belfast Foundation of around £100m, have helped transform the Belfast campus, resulting in a legacy that will benefit generations of students, staff and by the wider society for years to come.

Speaking about Feeney’s impact on Queen’s Nathalie Trott, Director of Development and Alumni Relations at the University, said:

“Chuck Feeney and The Atlantic Philanthropies have made a huge and direct impact on the life and landscape of Queen’s University Belfast – and indeed the entire island of Ireland – over the last 25-30 years and, indirectly, on the communities we serve.

“Landmark capital projects such as The McClay Library, Queen’s Elms Village and the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute For Experimental Medicine – at £15m the largest single donation that Queen’s has ever received – have changed the lives of countless students and provided our staff with state-of-art facilities in which to carry out world-class research.

“The doors of AP may have closed in Belfast, but Chuck Feeney’s legacy will live on for generations.”

Born in April 1931 in the industrial city of Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Irish-American parents Leo (an insurance underwriter) and Madaline (a nurse) and with roots that can be traced back to near the village of Kinawley in County Fermanagh, Chuck Feeney attended the local St Mary of the Assumption High School. He went on to graduate from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, after serving as a US Air Force radio operator for four years during the Korean War.  

He began his career selling duty-free liquor to US naval personnel at Mediterranean, and subsequently Asian ports, in the 1950s.

Co-founding the Duty Free Shoppers Group (DFS) in November 1960 in Hong Kong with a college classmate, the company was enormously successful. DFS would go on to dominate the airport duty free business around the world and at one point Feeney and his partners were earning $300 million a year.   

In 1982 Feeney set up The Atlantic Philanthropies – one of the largest private foundations in the world – and started to give away his fortune. At first he did so in secret, until a business dispute in the mid-1990s resulted in his identity being revealed.

Feeney was inspired by the Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In a famous essay published in 1898 entitled The Gospel of Wealth Carnegie wrote about the responsibilities of the very rich to use their great wealth for the good of society.

Queen’s graduate, Honorary Graduate and former journalist with The Irish Times, Conor O'Clery (BA English 1972, DUniv 2007), who wrote The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, a biography of Chuck Feeney, said:

"He read and was very impressed by Carnegie's famous essay Wealth, which says such things as 'to die rich is to die disgraced'."

As a result, ‘giving while living’ has been Chuck Feeney’s vision – making impactful philanthropic use of his personal wealth during his own lifetime – over the last 40 years. Speaking to Conor O’Clery, Feeney said this was a “sensible means for directing to good purpose, in a timely manner, a large and increasing wealth that exceeded my, and my family’s lifetime needs.”

At Queen’s, the impact of Feeney’s philanthropy can be seen in landmark buildings such as The McClay Library, which received £10m during the University’s Beyond fundraising campaign, in the Elms Village student accommodation facility, and in the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine (WWIEM) building which opened in 2016.

The WWIEM specialises in research into some of the world’s most debilitating illnesses, such as eye disease and diabetes, with the aim of ensuring that lab discoveries translate into improvements in patient diagnosis and treatment.

Feeney’s giving to Queen’s goes beyond funding capital projects. Research initiatives such as Improving Children’s Lives, the NICOLA study of ageing, and the internationally recognised Sharing Education programme.

The Centre for Shared Education, which received £1.3m from Atlantic Philanthropies in 2015, is led by Professor Joanne Hughes, who holds the UNESCO Globalising Shared Education Chair.

Speaking to Keith Baker for The Graduate magazine in 2016 Professor Hughes said:

“The Atlantic Philanthropies approach has given us time as well as funding. It allows us flexibility, to be experimental, and that leads to better results from which society will benefit.

“It has allowed us to extend our work globally, to develop shared education models in similar divided jurisdictions such as Macedonia, Israel, Cyprus and South Africa and to raise the global profile of this University.”

Feeney so transformed third level education on the island of Ireland that 10 universities (including Queen’s) came together in 2012 to confer a joint honorary Doctorate of Laws (LLD) on him. The combined intent was ‘to give public honour and thanks to Chuck Feeney for his incredible support of the Irish universities…’ and ‘to convey to the people of Ireland just how radical and transformative this continued support has been’.

The joint ceremony held in Dublin Castle was the first and only time such an honour has been conferred by the combined universities.

Introducing the honorary graduand Dr Patrick Fottrell, then Chair of the Science Foundation Ireland, said:

“Chuck strongly advocated a ‘think big’, ambitious approach to third level research funding. He wanted to transform rather that ‘tinker at the edges’ with the Irish research landscape”.

Keeping a low profile throughout his life and refusing many of the trappings of great wealth – he was said to have always travelled economy and allegedly never owned a car – the 89-year-old former billionaire once described by Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates as one of his ‘heroes’ and dubbed by Forbes Magazine as the ‘James Bond of Philanthropy’, can finally relax with his wife Helga in their small rented apartment in San Francisco.

And it seems only fitting that this very selfless and humble man should also be allowed these final inspirational words, as quoted in The Guardian (19 Sept 2020):

“Wealth brings responsibility. People must define themselves, or feel a responsibility to use some of their assets to improve the lives of their fellow humans, or else create intractable problems for future generations.”

If you would like to make a gift to Queen's, or to find out more about current areas of University research and other projects that need your help, please visit the Queen’s Foundation website.

General enquiries about this story to Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen’s University Belfast.

Main photo credit: David Cantwell


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