Sunday, December 13, 2015

Off the Shelf:
The Billionaire Who Wasn't

Yes, even in the midst of the hectic holiday season, there has got to be time for books. I've committed to making the intentional lifestyle change of re-incorporating old-fashioned book reading into my schedule, despite the rush of the season.

Perhaps it is thanks to that very frenzy that I was drawn to the book that I've reserved for my December read. While everyone else is mindful of what they will be getting, come the Big Day near the end of this month, I wanted to focus on a very different kind of giving: the kind that can't give back. Perhaps that is why Conor O'Clery's 2007 title resonate with me right now—The Billionaire Who Wasn't.

You see, back in 1988, Forbes magazine—the kind of publication which should know these things—had listed billionaire Chuck Feeney as the 23rd richest living American. What Forbes had missed was the quiet maneuver masterminded by Feeney four years earlier, in which he had established The Atlantic Philanthropies by transferring the bulk of his wealth to this foundation. In other words, the billionaire he once was, he now wasn't.

Though very few knew about Chuck Feeney's generosity over the decades, by 1997, the story was out when, faced with extenuating legal circumstances, he decided to explain his mode of anonymous philanthropy through a New York Times article. "He gave away $600 million and no one knew," explained the title of Judith Miller's January 23, 1997, article.

By 2012, Forbes got over its 1988 richest-American gaffe and had dubbed Chuck Feeney "The James Bond of Philanthropy." By then, that $600 million gift tally had exceeded $6.2 billion.

Embracing a concept he dubbed "Giving While Living," Chuck Feeney is intent on divesting his foundation of its remaining holdings by next year. True to his promise, an announcement last month detailed a multi-year mega-grant to two universities—one in San Francisco, one in Dublin—to establish a Global Brain Health Institute, focused on stemming the rise of dementia.

The Conor O'Clery book that explains the Feeney story—I admit, I've already started reading—starts out with a quote of Andrew Carnegie, which states in part,
This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: first, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds which he is called upon to produce the most beneficial results for the community.

Of course, I'm certainly no billionaire. But I yearn to learn a lesson from those who have discovered how to give effectively. Then again, every one of us living in this country is rich—we just haven't broadened our perspective enough to realize that bigger picture.

Interestingly, the kernel of Chuck Feeney's philanthropic convictions may have sprung up from his own family's roots. A son of Irish-Americans, he grew up in a modest suburban neighborhood in New Jersey, just outside New York City. The author includes vignettes of Feeney's growing up days during the Great Depression, his neighborhood, his family's attitudes about hard work and getting through difficulties. That, of course, comes as no surprise to those of us keen on seeing how family history shapes each of us.

Other than the background story of Feeney's roots, there will likely be little in this book to apply to genealogy. Still, as I've realized while reading the other books I've picked up since starting this book-reading project, sometimes it's what we discover in the interface between the words we're reading and the ideas they spark that makes the difference. Having not even read this book—or any of the others on my book shelves I've yet to crack open—I already can predict that this is where the value lies in reading.




  1. I could see you donating a dollar or three to cure Marfans Syndrome -

    Wouldn't it be cool to be able to donate a million or two?

    1. Yes, it would be cool--especially if it were enough to actually find a cure! But since most of us don't have a spare million just lying around, I guess we'll have to settle for that dollar or three! The secret, though, is that if a whole lot of us could join together to chip in a dollar, in the end, it would have the same effect--and most of us wouldn't really miss that dollar or three, either.

  2. If only we had just part of a fortune to pass around to different rare disorders.
    A long time ago, I met a young man. He had a connection to the Carnegies. His grandfather saved one of Margaret's Children from drowning. Later the Grandfather lost his job during the Depression, Christmas was going to be bleak when someone from the Carnegie family showed up at the door with a $100 bill.
    I hope it is a true story, he told it with much pride:)

    1. I love stories like that, Far Side. They do sound so encouraging. But I have to remind myself that I can't wait until I'm a Carnegie to start becoming generous. (Besides, that will likely never happen!) It may be an art form to make someone's day, but that's a great lesson to learn--even if we can't spare those hundred dollar bills.


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