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Duty-Free King Quietly Gives Away $8 Billion

Billionaire Chuck Feeney, shown in photo from, has given away more than $8 billion over the past 38 years.

Among the celebrity philanthropists who donate extreme amounts of money to education and lifting others, Chuck Feeney’s name is not as well-known as Bloomberg, Gates or Buffett.

Those billionaires — Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — are highly recognizable names of great wealth, and their efforts are well-known.

But Feeney, 89, has donated more than $8 billion in the past 38 years more quietly, espousing the slogan “Giving While Living” through his Atlantic Philanthropies (AP) organization, “to advance opportunity and promote equity and dignity.”

His intent has been so successful that he has depleted the wealth he accumulated in his lifetime, and his foundation closes this year.

Feeney was born and raised in an Irish-concentrated neighborhood in Elizabeth, N.J., a working class town that personifies industrialized, smokestack New Jersey. He served as a radio operator in Japan during the Korean War, and then went on to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., through the GI Bill, a government program that rewards military personnel for their service by paying for their education.

Feeney was the first person in his family to attend college. After graduating in 1956, Feeny and classmate Robert Miller started a luxury retail shopping business — Duty Free Shoppers — that populates airports around the world with high-end goods.

Men look at cosmetic products in a Duty Free store at the Fraport airport in Frankfurt, Germany, Nov. 14, 2012.
Men look at cosmetic products in a Duty Free store at the Fraport airport in Frankfurt, Germany, Nov. 14, 2012.

Numerous educational programs have benefited from Atlantic Philanthropies, but none more than Cornell, where Feeney graduated from its vaunted hotel management program. Cornell has received $1 billion from Feeney’s generosity.

“Physical markers of his giving are sprinkled around all corners of Cornell’s campus, funding everything from student scholarships to North and West Campus living facilities, hospitality research support, the Martin Y. Tang Welcome Center and athletics programs,” the university reported to the Cornell Daily Sun.

Feeney’s giving was “transformative,” said Cornell President Martha Pollack, and “deserves the highest recognition we can give,” the Cornell Daily Sun reported.

Feeney has been giving internationally, too.

“While his generosity towards Ireland and Cornell University is well-known, his relationship with the people of Vietnam has flown relatively under the radar,” blogged John W. Conroy in 2017.

In Vietnam, Feeney’s contributions rebuilt medical facilities, expanded libraries and increased educational opportunities.

“Viet Nam was the right place at the right time with the right people,” wrote Lien Hoang in a book for Atlantic Philanthropies. “The energy and commitment to change, the unfair legacy of brutal conflict, and the possibilities to improve responses to fundamental human needs in health and education were all evident.”

Feeney “has been the savior of our people and we will never forget that,” Conroy quoted Dr. Tran Ngoc Thanh, Da Nang Hospital director.

In Cuba, AP awarded $5.8 million in November to Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC), “a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California that has worked to promote US-Cuba health collaboration and highlight Cuba’s public health contributions to global health equity and universal health,” according to its website.

That brings AP’s total contribution to MEDICC to $16.7 million since 2002.

Feeney is not alone, just less public, about his philanthropy.

Last week, MacKenzie Scott, former wife of world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, donated $4.2 billion to groups helping the vulnerable, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scott last year signed a "giving pledge" to donate the bulk of her wealth to charity. In a round of donations early this year, Scott gave nearly $1.7 billion to groups devoted to race, gender and economic equality, as well as other social causes.

She is among other donors who have signed the pledge, saying they intend to donate much of their wealth in their lifetimes. Issues include “poverty alleviation, refugee aid, disaster relief, global health, education, women and girls’ empowerment, medical research, criminal justice reform, environmental sustainability, and arts and culture,” according to the pledge website.

Included are Canadian Marcel Arsenault whose foundation promotes good governance to prevent war; Sudanese-British Mo Ibrahim who is dedicated to good governance and leadership in Africa; Emirati billionaire Mohammed Bin Musallam Bin Ham Al-Ameri who is dedicated to helping the underprivileged; Chinese investment banker Dong Fangjun who helps drop-out students, among others, from impoverished families; entrepreneur You Zhonghui, the first Chinese woman to sign the pledge; Emiratis Badr Jafar and Razan al Mubarak, who promote good governance and transparency in the Gulf Region; Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Indian entrepreneur and owner of biotech company Biocon Limited; and others.