Reclusive Philanthropist Steps into Spotlight Once hailed as one of the richest men alive, Chuck Feeney transferred his billions to a foundation, which is giving it all away. The reclusive founder of the world's largest duty-free retail chain flew under the radar for years. But at 76, he's stepping into the spotlight.
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Reclusive Philanthropist Steps into Spotlight

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Reclusive Philanthropist Steps into Spotlight

Reclusive Philanthropist Steps into Spotlight

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm James Hattori.

In 1988, Forbes called billionaire Chuck Feeney the 23rd richest American. But the magazine got it wrong. Feeney had been enormously wealthy, but by then he'd started giving away his money to a foundation he'd set up called Atlantic Philanthropies. Today, the foundation is worth $4 billion and Mr. Feeney intends to give all of it away over the next decade.

Chuck Feeney rarely gives interviews, so we're pleased to have him with us on WEEKEND EDITION. He joins us from New York.


Mr. CHUCK FEENEY (Founder, Duty Free Shoppers Group; Founder, Atlantic Philanthropies): Thank you.

HATTORI: You are notoriously publicity shy. In fact, I think you once wrote into your own employment contract that you were obligated to remain silent about your business. Yet you've cooperated with the writing of a new biography, "The Billionaire Who Wasn't" by Conor O'Clery. And now, you've consented to talk with us. Why the change of heart?

Mr. FEENEY: Yeah, I guess it's a time and tide thing. I'm not getting any younger, I don't think. And I feel like there might be some advantage to spreading the word about giving while living and the satisfaction that people get from giving, and see if anybody agrees.

HATTORI: Most people probably have never heard of you, as I said, yet many know the business you built up over the years especially one called Duty Free Shoppers. That turned out to be an incredibly lucrative opportunity. Did you know it would always be that way, and how did that get started?

Mr. FEENEY: Well, we didn't know it would be as lucrative as it turned out to be, but that's that way it is in business. Sometimes you start it and it takes off and it was a time, I guess, when people were traveling, just going to travel and shopping in airports was new to them - it's not very new today - and we caught a wave.

HATTORI: Why did you take this turn to give away the vast fortune that you accumulated?

Mr. FEENEY: Well, I knew that it was going to be an issue that had to be dealt within at some important time and I'm not terribly turn on by money. And it was the opportunity to see how that money could be put to good use, and the method was the Atlantic Philanthropies, which has been very, very active particularly in the last 10, 15 years.

HATTORI: And that foundation has funded schools, and hospitals, universities, medical research and human rights efforts in the U.S., Ireland, South Africa, Vietnam and everywhere else. How do you choose among the many worthy causes in the world?

Mr. FEENEY: Yeah. Well, that's the big challenge because the money that's given is fairly substantial and it can be very successfully invested or alternatively could prove to be a marginal result, and we have been successful in selecting. And that had to do more with the situation and the people.

HATTORI: What drives you to succeed and to make these businesses what they are?

Mr. FEENEY: Well, that's part of the story. There is nothing that gives me a better feeling of success than saying the result of something that we have done. And I use an example of that - I was sitting in a hospital in Vietnam and we were supporting a group from Virginia called Operation Smile, a charity that goes all over the world doing corrective surgery. And there was a little girl sitting next to her father, just in front of me. I watched her cover her face up, just leave her hands in front of her mouth. And later on I figured out why, because she had a facial deformation. I saw that girl after she went through surgery and she was smiling. And I thought oh, my god, if we could take kids who were ashamed of something that they didn't cause and put them in a position to resolve it then that's a great source of satisfaction.

HATTORI: Is that the kind of thing you got from your parents? There's a story also in the book about how your mother used to take a handicapped man, pick him up in her car even though she really didn't have to go anywhere but she made the excuse to go.

Mr. FEENEY: Yeah. It's a question of caring for your neighbors and my mother cared about her neighbors at all times. And if she saw anybody with a problem, she tried to interject herself to find out if she could find a solution.

HATTORI: They said that money can't buy happiness. In your case, it seems to have for you and many others, especially those who benefited from the foundation.

Mr. FEENEY: Yes. I think that's true, but there are some people who like to have their money. Sometimes I wonder why because all you can really do is count it, unless you do something with it. And I was determined to use money for the purpose of helping others.

HATTORI: What's the next chapter in your life right now?

Mr. FEENEY: Gee, I wish I knew. I - we're going to continue spending our money because it's my belief that by giving while living, it doesn't prolong your life, you can do things and make good things happen and be part in parcel of that. And so, we have taken a board decision to spend down, which means that we're going to spend the corpus of the philanthropy in a time frame of about 10 years. And that will, you know, make things happen sooner rather than following the path of most philanthropies, which limit their giving to a percentage of their asset base.

HATTORI: Well, why do you suppose you turned out the way you did? I mean, most people who accumulate wealth are interested in, you know, a comfortable life or spending on their kids or something, yet you've created this foundation and done different things. Why do you suppose you turned out that way?

Mr. FEENEY: Gee, that's a difficult question to answer. Clearly, the impact of your parents on your later life is undeniable. My parents raised me to think about other people and say - they instruct me often that the things that can be done with money that help people are good investment.

HATTORI: Chuck Feeney of Atlantic Philanthropies. Thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. FEENEY: Thank you very much.

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