Brad J. Vest/The New York Times

Charles Feeney '56 in New York, pictured here on July 25, 2012, died on Monday, Oct. 9 in San Francisco. He was 92.

October 11, 2023

Charles “Chuck” Feeney ’56, Cornell’s Most Generous Donor, Dies at 92

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Charles “Chuck” Feeney ’56, a renowned businessman, Cornell alumnus, father, friend and, notably, the University’s most generous donor — died in San Francisco on Monday, Oct. 9, leaving a legacy of philanthropy and — as those who worked closely with him recall — kindness and humility. He was 92.

Feeney’s legacy both at the University and around the world is marked by his altruistic philanthropy. Known as the ‘James Bond of philanthropy,’ Feeney made a name for himself by giving $8 billion to charity — including $1 billion to Cornell — during his lifetime, much of which came in the form of anonymous donations. 

Feeney was born on April 23, 1931 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and studied at the School of Hotel Administration. While at Cornell, Feeney self-started a sandwich business at sports games and in student residence halls. Although initially created to cover his remaining academic expenses, the on-campus food service was popular among students, generating great success for Feeney. His continued endeavor landed him the nickname “Sandwich Man.”

Feeney’s philanthropic nature also assisted the University long before Atlantic Philanthropies —  a private foundation created by Feeney — was founded. For his class’s 25th reunion, he helped raise about $2 million — $1 million above their goal.

After graduating in 1956, Feeney moved to Barcelona. While there, he partnered with fellow hotel school alumnus Robert Warren Miller ’55 to form Duty Free Shoppers, a business selling duty-free luxuries to travelers. Duty Free Shoppers — now the DFS Group — grew into a global enterprise, with shops in airports and major cities across Europe, Asia and the Americas. Feeney amassed most of his wealth from the success of this partnership.

In 1982 Feeney founded Atlantic Philanthropies in Bermuda to maintain his anonymity. The foundation would later expand and open offices in the U.S. and other countries. The expansion included the creation of an Ithaca office. 

Located in Boardman House, the Ithaca office served as the primary liaison between Atlantic Philanthropies and the University. Atlantic Philanthropies’ first investment in Cornell, in 1982, was an anonymous grant of $7 million to establish The Cornell Tradition — an undergraduate fellowship program combining work, service and scholarship opportunities to instill a strong work ethic in civic-minded students — giving nearly $41 million to the program over the years and supporting more than 6,000 students. 

Among the people who worked at the Ithaca office was Joanne Florino, M.A. ’95 — Distinguished Fellow in Philanthropic Excellence at The Philanthropy Roundtable — who worked as a program assistant researching late 19th to early 20th century education while a graduate student. Florino described at that time the office only had three employees, and most of the grants were awarded to the University. She also expressed her gratitude for Feeney and the experiences and values she acquired while working at Atlantic Philanthropies. 

“I use Mr. Feeney as a model when I advise other philanthropists about thinking about alternatives to perpetuity — maybe putting a time frame in place around your philanthropy so that you can do more good while you’re alive to see it,” Florino said. “That was incredibly important to Mr. Feeney. He would say that he enjoyed kicking the tires himself.”

Florino described Feeney as a simple man who did not fit the common conceptions of what a billionaire would act like.

“The first time I saw him, he was wearing a crumpled trench coat. He did really bring things in plastic bags. We were never extravagant. If there was a board meeting, it was much more likely that we were going to just send out for deli sandwiches,” Florino said. “[Extravagance] was not what he wanted that culture to be [at] Atlantic Philanthropies.” 

According to his authorized biography, “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune” by Conor O’Clery, the anonymity was partly due to modesty, and partly out of concern that giving publicly and generously to an organization might discourage others from giving to the same organization.

Florino added that another reason for the anonymity was because Feeney enjoyed touring potential grantees in person, where he would not be given preferential treatment. He would ask questions about an organization’s operations and learn about who the organizations provide their services to without the expectation that he would donate money. 

Over their course of its operations, Atlantic Philanthropies gave almost $1 billion to the University, so much that former Cornell President Frank H.T. Rhodes referred to him as Cornell’s “third founder,” behind only Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White — Cornell’s first president — in the magnitude of his influence and impact. Much of the money went to the construction of more than a dozen buildings, notably on North and West Campuses, creating and transforming first-year student residential experiences and living-learning communities. He also provided funding for athletics endowments and facilities, including Bartels Hall and Cornell Outdoor Education.

Feeney’s contributions allowed for the creation of challenge grants to inspire alumni giving for University priorities and the Presidential Research Scholars Program, which was later named for former President Hunter R. Rawlings III. The grants also allowed for the acquisition and development of the Cornell Club property in New York City as a presence for the University and a gathering place for alumni and guests, and the Martin Y. Tang Welcome Center on Beebe Lake — a building that Atlantic helped restore in the 1980s and renovate in 2018 as Cornell’s first standalone welcome center.

One of Feeney’s most significant contributions, however, came in the form of a $350 million donation in 2011 that gave Cornell enough funding for the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City. His donation ultimately allowed Cornell to surpass Stanford University’s bid for the campus space.

Aside from his generous contributions to the University, Feeney gave $2.7 billion to education, more than $870 million to human rights and social change including $62 million in grants to advocate for the abolishment of the death penalty in the U.S. and $76 million for grassroots campaigns supporting the passage of Obamacare. He gave more than $700 million in gifts for health-related causes, ranging from a $270 million grant to improve public healthcare in Vietnam to a $176 million gift to the Global Brain Health Institute, a partnership program between Trinity College Dublin and the University of California, San Francisco.

Feeney’s contributions to philanthropy were inspiring to many individuals, such as fellow billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Feeney was a pioneer of “Giving While Living” that inspired the Giving Pledge started by Gates and Buffet in 2012, which Feeney also signed. 

“Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model, and the ultimate example of Giving While Living,” Bill Gates told Forbes in 2012. Warren Buffett referred to Feeney as his hero in 2014, when Buffett presented Feeney with the Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Atlantic Philanthropies stopped operations in 2020, when Feeney was 89 years old after having donated over $8 billion.

“I am just so happy that he was able to do all his giving while he was alive, because that was so important to him,” Florino said. “This whole message was giving while living, it really belongs to Chuck because he did more to model it and promote it than anyone who has followed him.”

Feeney is survived by his wife, along with his children from his first marriage — his daughters Juliette Feeney-Timsit ’84, Caroleen Feeney, Leslie Feeney Baily and Diane Feeney ’90, his son, Patrick Feeney — as well as 16 grandchildren.