Charles Feeney ’56 concluded his 35-year philanthropic career last month the same way he started it — with a $7 million donation to his alma mater, Cornell University.
This final grant to Cornell will create the Frank H.T. Rhodes Fund sponsoring The Cornell Tradition, a program created by Feeney’s original donation in 1982. The organization awards 500 fellowships each year to Cornell students who “demonstrate significant work experience, a commitment to campus and/or community service and academic achievement,” according to the University.
For example, in 2016, Cornell Tradition fellows helped with fall clean-up at the Cornell Plantations, participated in an annual service trip to Nicaragua and provided gifts to children in the Tompkins County area as part of the Cornell Elves program.
Cornell Tradition Fellows receive up to $4,000 per year in need-based student loan replacement grants and $3,500 over the course of their studies to support internship or service-oriented activities, according to the University.
After this gift, Atlantic Philanthropies — the organization Feeney founded to devote his wealth to service — will have given more than $40 million in loan relief to 5,500 fellows since its founding, the University says.
Feeney’s commitment to philanthropy — which has inspired donations totaling almost $1 billion to Cornell and over $8 billion of donations in general — has been dedicated to education, research, civil rights, youth and aging.
But, for Feeney, philanthropy has never been about ribbon cuttings, handshakes or popularity.
“[Feeney is] the most self-effacing and generous man I have ever met,” said President Emeritus Frank Rhodes, who was president of Cornell when Feeney made his first donation in 1982.
Rhodes’s praise appears to have some substance. In addition to always flying coach, rather than first class, once refusing to pay his daughter’s long-distance phone bills, wearing a $10 watch and declining offers from beneficiaries to name buildings in his honor, Feeney’s aversion to attention has led him to keep his philanthropic efforts strictly private for 15 years.
Feeney’s insistence on anonymity put Rhodes in an interesting position when he accepted Feeney’s 1982 donation.
“I had to convince the Board of Trustees that [the donation] was on the level, that there was nothing disreputable and this wasn’t Mafia money,” Rhodes said. “That was difficult.”
Feeney’s humble and under-the-radar tendencies have led The Irish Times to bill him “the anti-Trump” and Forbes Magazine to call him “the James Bond of philanthropy.”
When Feeney’s donations became public in 1997, The New York Times ran an article about him, titled, “He Gave Away $600 Million, and No One Knew.”
Once public, Feeney’s quiet philanthropy had an effect on two of the world’s richest and most famous people, who credit the donor for inspiring them to gift their wealth to charity.
“Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model, and the ultimate example of giving while living,” Bill Gates told Forbes.
“Chuck has set an example … he is my hero and Bill Gates’ hero,” Warren Buffet told Forbes. “He should be everybody’s hero.”
After Feeney’s philanthropy became public, he continued to donate to the University in large quantities. The highest grant Feeney ever gave — $350 million — helped fund the construction of the Cornell Tech campus in New York City.
Rhodes said there is “evidence of Chuck” all over Cornell’s Ithaca and New York City campuses, and Interim President Hunter Rawlings said last June that the University “is fortunate to have had The Atlantic Philanthropies as an ally for more than three decades.”
Feeney first acquired his wealth — which he rarely allowed to accrue, giving most of it to The Atlantic Philanthropies — by selling tax-free liquor to the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic fleet. In 1962, he and his then-business partner — Robert Miller ’55 — decided to expand their retail store to international airports in Hong Kong and Honolulu. The tactical move paid off when, two years later, Japan lifted foreign travel restrictions and Japanese tourists flocked to those two cities, leading to massive growth in Feeney’s wealth.
Feeney, who is 85 years old, said he aspires to donate almost all of his wealth before he dies. The Atlantic Philanthropies will close its doors in 2020, consistent with Feeney’s “giving while living” philosophy. As Forbes phrased it in 2012, “Feeney is working double time to die broke.”
For Feeney, the logic behind exhausting his wealth is simple.
“It’s a lot more fun to give while you’re alive, than to give while you’re dead,” he said. “I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living.”