Billionaire Charles Feeney has finally completed what he set out to do: He has given away his fortune. In all, he’s donated $8 billion, keeping only about $2 million for himself and his wife, Helga, who now live in San Francisco. Jim Dwyer of the New York Times wrote a glorious profile of Mr. Feeney early this month, and I urge everyone to read it. You will discover how he made his money and why he decided to give it away. Unlike Donald Trump, he did not insist upon having his name on buildings (and his money has helped build more than 1,000 of them!). He hasn’t wanted his name in lights, unlike a certain New Yorker. Moreover, Mr. Feeney gave away money that he himself had earned, in sharp contrast to Mr. Trump, who solicited donations from others and then donated the money in his own name.
Most of Mr. Feeney’s gifts have gone to to higher education (especially Cornell, his alma mater), public health, human rights, and scientific research).
For most of his time as a philanthropist, Mr. Feeney insisted on anonymity (unlike another New Yorker we know). Recipients either did not know where the money was coming from, or, if they did, they were sworn to secrecy.
I’m one of the beneficiaries. His gift saved my career.
It was 1994, and I was basically broke, with two films nearing completion but no money to finish them. I was employed by a small non-profit in South Carolina but working in New York City. That organization managed our grants, took care of payroll for the three of us, and filed final reports to foundations (although I wrote them). For these small tasks, the organization took 20% of every grant, off the top. I thought that was way too much, and I was able to persuade one foundation to write a 15% cap into its grant. I used that as leverage to get the rate down for other grants, but only after a protracted and nasty battle.