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Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
December 24, 2023 ·  6 min read

Billionaire promised to die ‘broke.’ $8 billion dollars later, the world is a better place for it.

The world’s wealthiest people are often criticized for being greedy. In many cases, this criticism is warranted. While a significant portion of society struggles to put food on its tables, the wealthiest among us seem to continue to make more and more money. This reality has become even more apparent amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While millions of people lost their jobs and were unable to pay rent, CEO’s of the world’s largest companies managed to amass even more wealth [1]. One man, however, has turned what it means to be a billionaire on its head and is inspiring others to follow his lead. Charles “Chuck” Feeney promised to “die broke”, choosing to donate the majority of his billions rather than live the life of luxury.

Giving While Living

Charles “Chuck” Feeney
Charles “Chuck” Feeney. Image via Philanthropy Daily

Charles Feeney is the co-founder of Duty-Free Shoppers. Since its start in 1960, Duty-Free Shoppers now operates in eleven major airports and twenty Galleria stores. In 2017, almost 160 million people visited one of those locations [2].

The success of his company has allowed Feeney to amass billions. While you might imagine, then, that he’s living a life of opulence, you are mistaken. The now 89-year-old has lived the life of frugality, instead choosing to give most of his wealth away. He pledged to “die broke”, and over the last forty years has given away more than eight billion dollars [3].

Feeney lives in a modest apartment in San Francisco with his wife, wears a ten-dollar watch, and doesn’t even own a car. When he travels, he always flies coach, and he never chooses to dine at luxurious restaurants. Instead, he prefers homier, more understated places like a burger at Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion on East 57th Street in New York City [2].

Feeney has operated his entire adult life on the principle that if you can’t take your wealth with you, why give it all away while you still have control of where it goes? This way, you can see the impact it has on the world with your own eyes.

This philosophy is very different from the way the world’s wealthy have typically gone about their philanthropic endeavors. Often, they set up charitable foundations with the goal of keeping those organizations going indefinitely. This, however, hinders the impact the organization can have because it takes away the ability to make high-risk, high-reward decisions.

Chuck Feeney: “The James Bond of Philanthropy

Chuck Feeney started a collection of private foundations called Atlantic Philanthropies. Through his foundations, he has given billions of dollars to a number of causes. He made every one of these donations anonymously For this reason, Forbes magazine has called him “the James Bond of Philanthropy”.

A vast portion of the money that went into the organization came from Feeney himself, thanks to early investments in companies like Facebook, Priceline, E-Trade, Alibaba, and Legent. In 1984 he secretly transferred all of his assets, along with his 38.75 percent ownership of his company, to the foundation [4].

The goal, however, with Atlantic Philanthropies was never to stay in operation forever. In fact, the organization’s end date was planned years in advance. Feeney did not want to wait until after his death to give away money, nor did he want to set up a legacy fund that would hand out meager amounts of money to the world’s largest problems. 

Wanting a ‘Real Impact’

Instead, he wanted to give aggressively in order to have a real impact. He did not, however, carelessly throw money around. Feeney looked for worthy causes and then went all-in. He went to the places where his money could have the largest impact.

“I see little reason to delay giving when so much good can be achieved through supporting worthwhile causes,” he said. “Besides, it’s a lot more fun to give while you live than give while you’re dead.” [3]

Atlantic Philanthropies’ specific closure date afforded the organization two important details: urgency and discipline. They had a hard deadline by which they had to give away all their money, forcing them to make decisions and make high-risk, high-impact donations.

“Our giving is based on the opportunities, not a plan to stay in business for a long time,” Feeney said in 2019 [3].  

Finally, on September 14, 2020, Feeney officially signed the papers to shut down Atlantic Philanthropies. The organization had given away over eight billion dollars and was out of money. Of course, that was the plan from the start. Feeney left himself a retirement sum of two million dollars for he and his wife, meaning that he has given away 375 thousand percent more money than his current net worth [3].

Where Did All the Money Go?

Feeney has given 3.7 billion dollars to education, more than 870 million dollars to human rights and social change, and 62 million dollars in grants to abolish the death penalty in the US.

He gave more than seven hundred million dollars in gifts to health, including 270 million dollars to improve public healthcare in Vietnam, and 176 million dollars to the Global Brain Health Institute in California [3].

In the early 1990s, Feeney met in secret with parliamentary forces in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He urged them to drop armed guerrilla conflict and promised them financial support if they embraced electoral politics [4].

Grants from Atlantic Philanthropies also paid to provide access to antiretroviral treatment for AIDS in South Africa. Another 600 million dollars went to the Atlantic Fellows initiative, which supported young emerging leaders working in their countries for healthier, more equitable societies.

His last major project, which used up the final sum of money left with the foundation, was a 700 million dollar grant to Chuck Feeney’s alma mater, Cornell University. 350 million dollars is for the school to build a technology campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island. The remaining half will be put towards supporting students doing community service work [3,4].

While closing a charitable organization is usually a somber occasion, shutting down Atlantic Philanthropies was a celebration of achievement.

“We learned a lot. We would do some things differently, but I am very satisfied. I feel very good about completing this on my watch,” Feeney told Forbes. “My thanks to all who joined us on this journey. And to those wondering about Giving While Living: Try it, you’ll like it.” [3]

Inspiring Others

Mr. Feeney’s actions have inspired other billionaires to re-think the way they do philanthropy work. His generosity encouraged Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to launch the Giving Pledge in 2010. The pledge is a campaign to convince the world’s wealthiest people to give away at least half of their fortunes before they die.

“Chuck was a cornerstone in terms of inspiration for the Giving Pledge,” says Warren Buffett. “He’s a model for us all. It’s going to take me 12 years after my death to get done what he’s doing within his lifetime.” [3]

Bill Gates has similar things to say about Feeny:

“Chuck created a path for other philanthropists to follow. I remember meeting him before starting the Giving Pledge. He told me we should encourage people not to give just 50%, but as much as possible during their lifetime. No one is a better example of that than Chuck. Many people talk to me about how he inspired them. It is truly amazing.” [3]

While extraordinary wealth is often vilified, Chuck Feeney is an example of how success and greed do not have to go together. His actions fly in the face of the stereotypical billionaire and have helped millions of people in the process.

Keep Reading: Someone Asks Why Billionaires Don’t Use Their Money To Solve World Problems, This User Explains It Perfectly


  1. CEOs Earn Millions While Millions Of Americans Lose Their Jobs.” Forbes. Jack Kelly. March 28, 2020.
  2. He promised to die ‘broke.’ $8 billion dollars later, the world is a better place for it.Upworthy. Tod Perry. September 15, 2020.
  3. Exclusive: The Billionaire Who Wanted To Die Broke . . . Is Now Officially Broke.” Forbes. Steven Bertoni
  4. James Bond of Philanthropy’ Gives Away the Last of His Fortune.” NY Times. Jim Dwyer. January 5, 2017