Meet Charles Feeney, Cornell's $350 Million Donor

The Atlantic
Meet Charles Feeney, Cornell's $350 Million Donor
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Meet Charles Feeney, Cornell's $350 Million Donor

The New York Times has unmasked 80-year-old Cornell alum Charles F. Feeney as the anonymous donor who gave the school a $350 million donation to construct a new technology-based satellite campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Officials at The  Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation started by Feeney in 1982, confirmed to the paper last night that he was the one who made the gift for the project, which is expected to generate an extra $1.4 billion in tax revenue for the city, plus 20,000 construction jobs and as many as 30,000 new jobs once the facility is up and running.

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Which leads to the inevitable question: who is this guy? To begin with, he's a very rich guy. He co-founded Duty Free Shoppers Group in the early 1960s, and sold his stake in the company to LVMH Moet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton for $2.47 billion in 1996. At the time, The Times noted Feeney's "net worth far exceeds the $975 million estimated by Forbes magazine." After the sale, The Times reported that the proceeds, paired with other funds Feeney turned over to the foundation "left the charity with $3.5 billion, even after the $610 million that has already been distributed to charities."

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To that point, he'd be donating anonymously, but it was Judith Miller of The New York Times who coaxed Feeney into discussing his donations with a member of the press for the first time in 1997, though he wouldn't pose for a picture.

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In addition to donating to universities and hospitals, Feeney told Miller that he's also made personal contributions to Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm, worth up to $280,000, which made him the organization's biggest American donor (Feeney holds dual citizenship.) As of 1997, the foundation's largest grant was $30 million, a figure that Feeney has dwarfed in recent years. In 2009, he gave $125 million to build a new medical center for the University of California-San Francisco that would treat women, children, and cancer patients. Over the course of the last decade, he's given more than €46m to the University of Limerick in Ireland. Hs total donations for Cornell over the years -- not counting the latest $350 hit -- exceed $600 million. 

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Perhaps not surprisingly, he took the "Giving Pledge" created by Bill and Melinda Gates earlier this year, vowing to give away everything in the Atlantic Philanthropies coffers by 2020. As Dealbook noted at the time, the rapid timetable illustrates Feeney's specific brand of philanthropy, which eschews trusts and foundations for what he calls "giving while living," in which the philanthropist's goal is to become flat broke before his own death.

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Nearly every profile makes note of how unimpressed Feeney is with what his wealth can buy him, noting that he flies coach, wears a $15 watch, and doesn't own a house or a car. When Miller asked him why he decided to give everything away, Feeney replied, "I simply decided I had enough money."

In 2007, when The New York Times convinced him to sit for a profile again, Jim Dwyer said, not inaccurately, that Feeney was "what Donald Trump would be if he led his life backward."

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