Billionaire philanthropist struggles to go broke

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NEW YORK -- Across from a television set with the obsolete girth of a model bought 20 years ago, beneath the grandchildren's crayon artwork taped to the wall, to the left of an abandoned hula hoop, Charles F. Feeney sits in an armchair and explains how he will get rid of his last $1.5 billion, give or take, by 2016.

Just as he did with his first $6 billion, it will all be awarded through Atlantic Philanthropies, the group of private foundations he created in 1982 and managed to run anonymously for its first 15 years, even though it was one of the largest sources of grants in the United States, Ireland, South Africa and Vietnam.

Why shut it down? Mr. Feeney, 81, a man with no romantic attachment to wealth or its trappings, said the world had enough urgent problems that required attention now, before they became even more expensive to solve.

"When you've got the money, you spend it," Mr. Feeney said. "When you've spent it all, let someone else get going and spend theirs."

When the last of its money has been spent, and it closes its doors sometime around 2020, Atlantic Philanthropies will be by far the largest such organization to have voluntarily shut itself down, according to Steven Lawrence, director of research for the Foundation Center. (The much bigger Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plans to shut down 50 years after its founders die.)

By its end, Atlantic will have invested about $7.5 billion in direct medical care, immigration reform, education, criminal justice advocacy and peace-building initiatives. It was an invisible hand at the end of armed conflicts in South Africa and in Northern Ireland, providing funds to buttress constitutional politics over paramilitary action. It has supported marriage-equality campaigns, death penalty opponents and contributed $25 million to push health care reform.

Last fall, Mr. Feeney gave his alma mater, Cornell University, $350 million to seal its bid to build a new campus for advanced engineering that New York City has commissioned for Roosevelt Island. The day the gift was announced, Stanford University dropped out of the competition. He has also given $270 million for a new medical campus in San Francisco.

"If only I could remember who hooked me up with it," Mr. Feeney said. "He said, 'You're out here a lot anyway, it won't take much of your time.'" That was in 2004.

With grand philanthropy often comes public glory for wealthy donors, as buildings and institutes are dedicated to benefactors, their names embedded above doorways like graffiti tags chiseled in marble.

No building anywhere bears Mr. Feeney's name. Among tycoons, he has been a countercultural figure of rare force, clinging to his privacy far more fiercely than to his money.

He set up the philanthropies in Bermuda, in large part because that would allow him to escape U.S. disclosure requirements. That also meant he could not take tax deductions when he contributed his holdings.

Mr. Feeney, who grew up in a working-class family in Elizabeth, N.J., served as a radio operator in the U.S. Air Force and attended Cornell on the GI Bill.

He sold liquor to sailors in ports, then formed a company that ran airport duty-free shops around the world. He secretly turned over the duty-free business to the philanthropies in 1984 and continued to invest.

In 1997, he disclosed his role in Atlantic when the business was being sold but stayed out of public sight. In the last 10 years, he decided that enlarging his profile might inspire rich people to share their fortunes.

One result was "The Billionaire Who Wasn't," a sparkling, unblinking biography by Conor O'Clery, a leading Irish journalist. Another was that Warren Buffett called Mr. Feeney the "spiritual leader" of a campaign urging extremely wealthy people to donate their money.

He buys clothes off the rack -- "I'm a shabby dresser," he said -- and until recently, flew coach as he traveled among four or five continents. "They decided as part of my 75th-birthday celebrations that I would be entitled to fly first class," Mr. Feeney said, sounding a bit embarrassed. "I'll be honest, I'm not good at flying anymore. To my credit, I can stretch out on two coach seats."

When in New York, Mr. Feeney lives in a building on a side street in midtown Manhattan.

He has given away essentially everything he has made, apart from decent --though not extravagant -- provisions for his four daughters and one son. They all worked through college as waiters, maids and cashiers.

"I want the last check I write to bounce," Mr. Feeney said.

nation


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