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The most generous billionaire you probably never heard of

4 min read

Good Stuff

This billionaire has given away more of his money than almost anyone else in history, and the chances are you won’t even recognise his name.

Billionaire pioneer of duty-free shopping has given almost all his money away

Charles "Chuck" Feeney is an Irish-American businessman, philanthropist and the founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies, one of the largest private foundations in the world. He made his fortune as a co-founder of the Duty Free Shoppers Group, which pioneered the concept of duty-free shopping. Over the course of his life, Feeney has given away more than $8 billion, and is now literally down to his last couple of million dollars. He calls it "Giving while living,"

Chuck Feeney: billionaire on a mission to go broke Asked about his ambitions, Mr. Feeney once said: “I want the last cheque I write to bounce.” Source: Facebook/ThisIsZinc

By the time it ceases operations the foundation will have given away more than $8 billion

Modest. Strategic. Compassionate. Charismatic. Complex. These words describe Chuck Feeney, founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies. And yet this man, who has always preferred to fly economy and carries his papers in a plastic bag, created an organisation that has helped make changes of historic proportions. Among them:

  • Facilitating the peace process in Northern Ireland.
  • Catalysing the creation of knowledge economies in the Republic of Ireland and Australia.
  • Hastening the end of the juvenile death penalty and reducing the number of children without health insurance in the United States.
  • Securing lifesaving medication for millions afflicted with HIV/AIDS in South Africa.
  • Helping Vietnam develop a more equitable system for delivering health care throughout the country. 

Driven by a belief that the best use of one’s wealth is to help people, Feeney founded Atlantic in 1982. By the time it fully ceases operations, the foundation will have made grants totaling more than $8 billion.


Warren Buffett and Chuck Feeney (right) at the awards ceremony where the Irish American businessman received a Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Chuck has set an example… he is my hero and Bill Gates’ hero. He should be everybody’s hero.” – Warren Buffett Warren Buffett and Chuck Feeney (right) at the awards ceremony where the Irish American businessman received a Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award. Source:

Giving While Living

The Atlantic Philanthropies were founded by entrepreneur Chuck Feeny who decided in 1982 to devote his wealth to the service of humanity. A champion of Giving While Living, Feeney has long maintained that people of wealth should use it to better the world during their lifetimes. That belief, which has been a driving influence in the foundation’s work, led their trustees to decide in 2002 to limit Atlantic’s life to a fixed term.

Atlantic, which plans to close its doors in 2020, completed its grantmaking at the end of 2016. Over 35 years, they have invested a total of $8 billion in promising programs and people and in places where they saw the chance to create opportunity and promote greater fairness and equity for all. Because they believe that it’s imperative to address deeply rooted problems sooner than later, many of their grants were “big bets” designed to produce lasting results.


In 1984, he secretly transferred all of his assets, including his 38.75 percent ownership of the duty-free business, to Atlantic Philanthropies. He grew the Atlantic pot with early investments in companies like Facebook, Priceline, E-Trade, Alibaba and Legent.
A business dispute in 1997 forced disclosure of Mr. Feeney’s secret funding of Atlantic In 1984, he secretly transferred all of his assets, including his 38.75 percent ownership of the duty-free business, to Atlantic Philanthropies. He grew the Atlantic pot with early investments in companies like Facebook, Priceline, E-Trade, Alibaba and Legent. Source:

Philanthropy on this huge scale began with Carnegie and Rockefeller and continues today

Chuck Feeney is not the only one. The founders of Groupon and GoDaddy, along with billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Microsoft founder, Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, have each pledged to give away at least 50% of their wealth. Dozens of other billionaires have also taken the “Giving Pledge". 

But this kind of generosity is nothing new. Here are some other ultra-wealthy philanthropists who gave away staggering sums of their own money:

Andrew Carnegie

The American steel magnate of the nineteenth century, Andrew Carnegie is not only remembered as one of the richest men of all times but for a philanthropic legacy which made him donate billions to educational and research institutions. Before his death on 11 August 1919, Carnegie had donated $350,695,654 for various causes, chief among which was the founding of many libraries, schools, and universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and other countries, as well as a pension fund for former employees. Carnegie wrote "The Gospel of Wealth", an article in which he stated his belief that the rich should use their wealth to help enrich society; he is famous for coining the phrase "…the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced." which in a nutshell was the guiding wisdom behind his philanthropic initiatives.

A self-made man from humble beginnings, Carnegie worked hard from childhood. With continual progress he accumulated savings which became investments. Eventually his investments became capital for a wide range of business ventures spread over railroads, rail sleeping cars, bridges, oil derricks and finance which at the peak of his career made him worth a whopping $297.8 billion.

John D. Rockefeller

John D. Rockefeller is widely considered to be the richest man in modern history whose name has become almost a by-word for big money. Interestingly though he was philanthropically active throughout his career and not just at the end of his life. Rockefeller used his massive fortune to create the modern systematic approach of targeted philanthropy with foundations that had a major effect on medicine, education, and scientific research. Among his chief contributions was the creation of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913 to which he gave nearly $250 million to promote public health, medical training, and the arts all across the world.Rockefeller made his fortune in the oil business and founded the standard oil company which soon came to dominate the entire energy industry. Eventually he was found to have encouraged monopolistic practices but by then he had already diversified into other ventures and the Rockefeller fortune was estimated to be a staggering $323.4 billion.

Warren Buffett

In 2006, Warren Buffett, widely billed as the third richest man in the world, made headlines when he pledged to give away 85% of his money to charitable institutions, most notably the Bill and Melinda gates Foundation. One of the most high-profile investors of America, Buffett has consistently figured among the top three richest men in the world for many years now. At the peak of his fortunes, Buffett was estimated to have $62 billion net worth even though currently that has come down to $47 billion. The primary source of Buffett’s fortune is the textile firm Berkshire Hathaway which he took over in 1965. Eventually he used the company as a vehicle to invest in varied sectors as insurance, food, utilities and recently green technology.

(to see more ultra-wealthy who gave away fortunes, click source)


Feeny on Giving While Living “It’s simple, really. You get more satisfaction from giving while you’re alive and involved. You learn and make adjustments to achieve the highest and best use of your resources. You get to see what you’ve helped accomplish.” Source: Youtube/AtlanticPhilanthropies
Make an Impact

How to become a philanthropist in three simple steps (an illustrated guide)

Becoming a philanthropist (someone who donates his or her time, money, and/or reputation to charitable causes), can be a very rewarding thing. Here is a step-by-step guide in 3 stages, with 10 illustrations, to help you enjoy the benefits of giving while living.