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The Billionaire Who Stopped Giving

Charles "Chuck" Feeney
Source: Atlantic Philanthropies
Charles "Chuck" Feeney

There are many reasons to admire Charles “Chuck” Feeney. He built a multi-billion dollar company, the DFS duty-free empire. He has given away more than $6 billion of his fortune to charity. And he has been among the biggest supporters of peace in Northern Ireland.

But the chief reason to admire Chuck Feeney is his announcement yesterday: that he is ending his charitable giving.

It’s not that Feeney has become stingy or uncaring.

The 81-year-old philanthropist is winding down his charitable foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, because he has largely fulfilled his promise to give away the bulk of his fortune during his lifetime. He called it “giving while living.”

Fully thirty years after he first set up Atlantic, most of his fortune has been gifted and he’s winding down his charitable shop. Just like he promised.

“I believe strongly in ‘giving while living,’” he wrote in a statement. “I see little reason to delay giving when so much good can be achieved through supporting worthwhile causes today. Besides, it’s a lot more fun to give while you live than to give while you are dead.”

He said that Atlantic will make its final grants by the end of 2016. Some programs will end before then, since the foundation will have less funding. Atlantic said that “as we approach our final years, these limitations are becoming more evident and more acute, and require that we make difficult choices.”

The drawdown will no doubt cause alarm and hardship for many of the groups that have come to rely on Feeney.

But consider what he’s done since 1982, when he created Atlantic and became one of the world's top philanthropists. He funded reconciliation in Northern Ireland and South Africa. He helped cure disease in Vietnam. He’s fought for better education and health care in the United States. He’s given more than $350 million to Cornell, his alma mater. And he’s been a mentor to countless philanthropists in recent years who want to learn how to be more effective charitable givers.

Lots of other philanthropists have said they want to “give while living.” But inevitably ego, bureaucracy and the self-perpetuating nature of non-profits lead to foundations that result in unintended philanthropy from beyond the grave.

Many such foundations continue to do important work. But many are also less effective, less focused and less accountable than they were when directed by their founders.

I’m sure Feeney has enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life. (The man who flies economy and has been known to take the subway probably doesn’t need much.)

But Feeney has made good on one of the toughest promises in philanthropy: to personally give away the vast majority of his fortune while he’s still alive. With $6 billion, that’s no easy task.

-By CNBC's Robert Frank
Follow Robert Frank on Twitter:
@robtfrank