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The anonymous billionaire who gave it all away

Feeney: donated $8bn to charitable causes. The Atlantic Philanthropies

At some point in the 1980s, Charles Feeney began feeling troubled by his “opulent life”, says The New York Times. The American entrepreneur had made billions from his duty-free business, and owned “palatial homes” in New York, London, Paris, Honolulu and elsewhere. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that he didn’t deserve it. “I just reached the conclusion,” he said, “that money, buying boats and all the trimmings didn’t appeal to me.” So he decided to give it all away. Over the next 35 years, Feeney donated almost the entirety of his $8bn fortune to a vast range of charitable causes around the world, from universities and medical institutions to human rights groups and peace initiatives. Not only that, but he did it all anonymously. Beneficiaries were told the cash came from a generous “client”; those who learned of his identity were sworn to secrecy.

Feeney, who has died aged 92, did make what he called “decent but unextravagant” provisions for his five children, and kept around $2m for himself. But he adopted a deeply thrifty lifestyle. He flew economy and travelled by bus or subway, bought his clothes off the rack, and stopped eating at fancy restaurants. He and his second wife “lived in a modest rented apartment in San Francisco”. In 2016, with a $7m donation to his alma mater, Cornell University, Feeney officially emptied the account of his philanthropic organisation. “I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth,” he said, than to “devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition”.