Charles Feeney

Founding Chairman of The Atlantic Philanthropies, Charles Feeney, is the recipient of the 2014 Inyathelo Lifetime Philanthropy Award for Giving While Living.

Born during the Great Depression, Charles “Chuck” Feeney came from a modest background of blue collar Irish-American parents who worked hard to make a good life for their family in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was an entrepreneur from an early age – selling Christmas cards door-to-door and teaming up with a friend to shovel sidewalks during snowstorms. Following graduation from high school, Feeney enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. He took advantage of the GI Bill, a government-funded education benefit for veterans, to attend Cornell University, becoming the first member of his family to go to college. When he graduated, he started a business selling goods to American troops stationed in Europe that eventually became Duty Free Shoppers, the world’s largest luxury goods retailer.

Feeney believes fervently that people who have been fortunate to amass great wealth should use their wealth for a greater good. In 1982, he established The Atlantic Philanthropies, which have made grants totaling more than $6.5 billion (R71.3 billion) -- focused on promoting education, health, peace, reconciliation and human dignity.  In addition to South Africa, the foundation has operated in Australia, Bermuda, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the United States and Viet Nam. Chuck Feeney quietly transferred virtually all of his assets to The Atlantic Philanthropies in the late 1980s; for the first half of Atlantic’s history, its grantmaking was done anonymously.

Feeney makes big investments to help solve today’s urgent problems. Atlantic’s Founding Chairman grants range from kick-starting universities across Ireland that propelled Ireland’s knowledge economy to seeding the creation of Cornell NYC Tech, an applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City, which will be a global magnet for tech talent and entrepreneurship. 

Feeney’s interest in South Africa grew after a meeting with former African National Congress General Secretary Cyril Ramaphosa, who drew parallels between the peace process in Northern Ireland, in which he and Atlantic had invested, and his involvement in bringing apartheid to a peaceful end in South Africa.  Soon after, Atlantic began investing in efforts to seek justice, promote better health care and greater health equity, and deliver services that support transformative social change, foster human rights and dignity in South Africa, and fulfil the promise of the democratic Constitution. 

Feeney’s matching grant for the Life Sciences Building at the University of Western Cape ended a 15 year moratorium in university investment from the government and transformed university infrastructure in the country by successfully leveraging investments of almost R7 billion from the government.

Chuck Feeney’s philosophy of Giving While Living has inspired the Giving Pledge, a commitment by many of the world’s wealthiest people to give the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.