NEW YORK — A man who wanted to remain a nobody revealed Thursday that he has financed a secret philanthropic organization for more than a decade that has amassed assets valued at more than $3.5 billion, making it the fourth-largest charity in the United States.
The Atlantic Foundation and the Atlantic Trust, both incorporated in Bermuda, have dispensed more than $600 million in contributions to a variety of organizations that seek to improve public education, serve the elderly, empower youth and increase the effectiveness of charitable giving.
From their offices here, the two trusts handed out about $140 million last year. That compares to the $295.2 million given by the Ford Foundation for the year ended September 1994; the $226.6 million from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for the year ended August 1995; and the $157.1 million given by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 1994.
The man behind it all is Charles F. Feeney, 65, a reclusive businessman who disclosed his anonymous philanthropy in a New York Times interview published Thursday. Feeney made his fortune as a founding partner of the Duty Free Shoppers Ltd., which sells liquor and cigarettes in airports.
Feeney decided in 1984 to secretly transfer his personal ownership interest in the company--then worth an estimated $500 million--to an irrevocable Bermuda trust so he could pursue his charitable impulses. That amount has now climbed to more than $3.5 billion, the foundation says, including $1.67 billion in cash from the sale earlier this month of Feeney's interest in the duty-free shops.
The grandson of Irish immigrants, Feeney grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Elizabeth, N.J. His father was an insurance underwriter, his mother a nurse. Although regularly featured as one of the world's wealthiest men in business magazines, Feeney has said his personal assets total less than $5 million. A perpetual world traveler, overseeing his far-flung business and philanthropic interests, Feeney does not own a home and eschews most trappings of personal wealth, except for occasional jaunts to the Kentucky Derby, friends said.
"The greatest danger he saw in his life was the money overcoming him," said Niall O'Dowd, publisher of the Irish Voice newspaper here, who has known Feeney for 10 years. "He feels very lucky with his wealth, and he's never allowed it to control him. To use the Irish expression, he's always realized there are no pockets in a shroud."
Feeney declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article. He is revealing his massive involvement in charitable giving now because documents filed as part of the sale of his interest in the duty-free shops company disclosed the existence of the Atlantic Trust and the Atlantic Foundation, said Joel L. Fleishman, president of the Atlantic Philanthropic Service Co., the Manhattan-based firm through which the grants are made.
"Chuck Feeney is a private person and is uncomfortable with people feeling a sense of indebtedness to him," said Fleishman, attempting to explain Feeney's insistence on remaining anonymous, even from his recipients. "There's a long tradition in religion and philosophy that elevates anonymous philanthropy to a very high rank. But that sounds sanctimonious, and he's the farthest thing away from being sanctimonious or self-righteous. He wants to live his life as normally as possible."
Feeney is said to be gregarious with his friends and would joke about his insistence on anonymity, Fleishman said. He recalled a directors' meeting in Ireland where Feeney and his wife greeted two directors who had flown overnight with a big sign: "Welcome Two Anonymous Visitors."
Feeney has in the past year also personally funneled more than $200,000 to Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army. The contribution, which did not go through Feeney's charitable entities, is used to finance the group's Washington office. However, a quarter of the foundation's grants have gone to charities and universities in Ireland.
Friends said Feeney would fume privately about how much money some people earned and how little they gave back, but felt he could not say anything publicly. "He believes that far too many people in this country who are extremely wealthy do not give enough," O'Dowd said. "He's privately quite critical of people who have extraordinary amounts of money who give nothing."
Indeed, in Feeney's one public statement Thursday, he said "that people of substantial wealth potentially create problems for future generations unless they themselves accept responsibility to use their wealth during their lifetime to help worthwhile causes." He expressed hope that other wealthy individuals "would consider the creation of well-managed giving programs or foundations."
One focus of Feeney's foundation is projects that try to maximize charitable giving. The Washington-based Urban Institute has received a grant of between $1 million and $10 million to study, among other things, how tax incentives can better promote charitable giving, said William Gorham, the institute's president.
Fleishman said he and his staff were the visible part of Feeney's charitable organization. Unsolicited grant proposals were not--and still will not--be accepted by the group. Instead, Fleishman and his staff sought out potential grant recipients by doing their own research. Recipients were told simply that they were receiving an anonymous grant.
Dorothy S. Ridings, president of the Council on Foundations, said Feeney's operation "was the best-kept secret in all of philanthropy."