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The billionaire whose aim is to go broke this year

Chuck Feeney has given away more money in his life than most people can dream of. And he’s inspired Warren Buffet and Bill Gates to do the same.


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Sometime this year a genial 89-year-old Irish-American gentleman named Chuck Feeney will go broke. He’s not quite sure when. But he’s looking forward to the day and will be quite happy about it.

In fact, it’s something he promised himself he’d do years ago and he’s been working steadily towards that goal.

If you and I decided to go broke, we could probably achieve it in a day or two. But with Chuck it has taken a bit longer — since 1982 in fact. Because he’s been trying to give away a whopping US$9 billion!

He’s given away nearly everything

Now he’s nearly there. Around $2 billion has gone to needy causes in his ancestral home of Ireland and the rest in the country where he was born, the US, and to various parts of the world where people are in need.

South Africa is one of them. His Atlantic Philanthropies organisation opened a regional office in Johannesburg in 2000 and by the end of 2016 it had invested (his word) around $422 million in local causes.

These are “funds that were used to build, strengthen and advance democratic institutions and organisations that promote equity, opportunity, dignity and democracy, and that have scored major victories in improving the lives for the country’s least advantaged people”, the Atlantic Philanthropies’ web page for South Africa states.

Committed to two more SA projects in 2016

In 2016, the organisation committed to two more projects in South Africa.

The first is $45 million for the Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity in South Africa to create, connect and sustain a community of innovators and leaders who will help bridge the gap between rich and poor, and build a healthier nation for all.

A second, unknown, amount went to the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity. It supports leaders committed to dismantling anti-black racism in South Africa and the United States, two nations with deep and enduring legacies of racial exclusion and discrimination.

As Chuck’s money starts to run out, the South African office has closed. So have offices in Australia, Great Britain, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Vietnam.

Offices in New York City and Bermuda continue for the moment.

You’re probably never heard of the billionaire

Unless you work in the philanthropy and charity field — and perhaps know of his Atlantic Philanthropies organisation — you’ve probably never heard of the billionaire, Chuck Feeney.

Don’t worry. Not many have. He’s always been one to fly under the radar and self-promotion was never his thing. These days he lives in a small rented apartment in San Francisco with his wife Helga.

Bill and Warren were inspired by Chuck

But Bill Gates knows the billionaire. So does Warren Buffett. In fact, Chuck’s philosophy of “Giving While Living” — in other words, going broke by giving your money away — has inspired both of them.

“Giving While Living has been taken up by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates as the best way to dispense their wealth by helping others,” says Niall O’Dowd, a prominent Irish-American publisher and writer.

“Getting Gates and Buffett to follow you is a big deal.”

As Forbes wrote, “Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are the two most iconic philanthropists in the world, having given away tens of billions to much fanfare. But their role model is Chuck Feeney, a former billionaire who gave away his entire fortune almost completely unnoticed.”

“Chuck has set an example,” Buffet said recently. “It’s a real honour to talk about a fellow who is my hero and Bill Gates’ hero. He should be everybody’s hero.”

So how did Chuck make his fortune?

In case you’re wondering, Chuck Feeney made his fortune by seeing the huge potential in duty-free sales. He co-founded Duty-Free Shoppers Group in 1960 and today the company — known simply as Duty-Free Shoppers — is the largest player in the global duty-free markets, operating in 420 locations worldwide.

And if you’re also wondering whether you can get your hands on any of Chuck’s money for your pet charitable cause, the answer is no. The foundation made its last financial commitments in 2016 and those commitments should be concluded this year.