Service of Giving as it Should Be

October 16th, 2023

Categories: Anonymity, Charity, Generosity

Philanthropist Charles F. Feeney preferred to take taxis or busses over limos or a private car the last decades of his life.

NPR’s “Weekend Edition” Saturday host Scott Simon brought the death of Charles F. Feeney to his listeners’ attention. I suspect that many, if not most, didn’t know who he was, which is just as he wanted it to be.

Simon shared highlights of the obit that Robert D. McFadden wrote in The New York Times: “Charles Feeney, Who Made a Fortune and Then Gave It Away, Dies at 92.

“After piling up billions in business, he pledged to donate almost all of his money to causes before he died. He succeeded, and then lived a more modest life.” According to McFadden, he’d succeeded by 2016, “a rarity in the philanthropic world.”

And there was another twist to his beneficence: Only one percent of Americans give money away anonymously as Feeney did.

McFadden wrote: “Unlike philanthropists whose names are publicized, celebrated at banquets and emblazoned on building facades and museum wings, Mr. Feeney gave anonymously to universities, medical institutions, scientific endeavors, human rights groups, peace initiatives and scores of causes intended to improve lives in the United States, Vietnam, South Africa, Australia, Israel, Jordan and other lands.”

He funded 1,000 buildings anonymously, paying by cashier’s checks.

He grew up in NJ during the depression, joined the Air Force, went to Cornell’s school of hotel administration and founded a “duty-free shopping business by selling liquor, cigarettes and perfume to homeward-bound American servicemen in Europe in the 1950s.”

He gave up the 7 estates he owned in the U.S., UK and in France and began to fly economy, took subways, busses and taxis, gave up visiting pricey restaurants and bought off-the-rack clothes. He lived in a two-bedroom rental in San Francisco, wore a $10 watch and owned no car.

According to McFadden, his philanthropy over 15 years first came to light 26 years ago due to legal filings when he sold his interest in Duty Free Shoppers.

When, wrote McFadden, he signed a Giving Pledge 23 years ago with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in which the three promised to give away most of their fortunes, [though not necessarily while still alive], he said: “I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living, to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition.”

Do you know of others who share Feeney’s approach to giving? Do you think he should have identified himself?

Inside NYC bus.

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8 Responses to “Service of Giving as it Should Be”

  1. EAM Said:

    True altruism is giving your money away without expecting credit. Trump always put his name on everything inc. the Wollman rink even though people didn’t refer to it as the Donald J. Trump rink.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Take crowdsourced fundraisers such as GoFundMe. Some might not want to be identified if for no other reason than they may not be able to give a significant sum plus they may not want to promote that they have participated.

    I suspect that stockholders at Citi or Staples, for example, wouldn’t be over the moon to learn that the respective companies supported sports stadiums anonymously. I doubt that they’d want to be the first to test the waters of secrecy and the positive publicity as a result of their modesty.

  3. Martha Takayama Said:

    I personally don’t know of anyone who is so generous. I don’t think there is any reason that he should have had to identify himself. I do think what he did was amazing and wonderful. I am very cynical about the endless meg-donations which result in constant naming and renaming of institutions, buildings, streets, and whatever else can be called into service for such purposes.

    Furthermore there are often inherent negative elements clouding the choices of such names. If they are from long ago it seems unrealistic to judge the honorees values by present ones. However, there are others that would bear not being chosen given the overall values or practices of the donors. There is a distinctly commercial aspect to the selling of such titles, but many people take issue with questioning the origin of the donations.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I suddenly remembered the Sacklers and all the organizations that removed their name from walls and buildings [and I suppose returned the money?] due to the family’s association with the opioid crisis. It took quite a while for some to do so if I recall.

  5. BC Said:

    He seems to live by Micah 6:8.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I had to look it up. The first of several versions:

    “He has told you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness and to walk humbly with your God.”

    The obit said he was born into a Roman Catholic family but it didn’t report that his approach to giving was inspired by religion. He was clearly a special person and a model for us all.

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    Wise man! He protected himself from the annoyance of scammers, grifters and parasites while enjoying the pleasure of making life easier for those less fortunate. As to the advisability of remaining anonymous, it was his money, therefore his decision.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    If I understood the obit writer, he hid his assets/foundation in a place his donations were NOT tax deductible. He was serious about not being identified.

    You make a good point about hiding his name but I like to think he did it for all the right reasons. That said, safety may also have been a reason to keep his wealth under his hat.

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