Tis the season to give generously
The Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 20 December 2023
They called Chuck Feeney the “James Bond of philanthropy”. During his life, he gave away his entire $US8bn fortune. And he did it anonymously.
But Feeney wasn’t always focused on giving. At age 50, he owned homes in London, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Aspen and the French Riviera, partied on yachts, and attended black-tie soirees. Having started off selling duty free cigarettes, he had built a duty free empire that operated like a money machine.
That was when he had an epiphany and decided to give it all away. Having grown up in a working class New Jersey family, Feeney decided that he would return to a simple life.
Through his philanthropic foundation – Atlantic Philanthropies – Feeney gave money to create AIDS clinics in South Africa, to provide free surgeries to children with cleft palates, and to medical research worldwide.
In Australia, he gave money to more than 20 medical research institutes, including the Royal Children’s Hospital, the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, and the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital Stroke Unit.
Globally, more than 1000 buildings were constructed with Feeney’s donations. Yet none of them bear his name. Grants were made by unnamed cheques, with recipients told that the money came from an anonymous donor. If anyone learned the truth, they were asked to keep it to themselves.
In his later life, Feeney did not own a home. He did not own a car. He took buses when he could, and carried his papers in a plastic bag. He flew economy, and wore a $10 watch. He and his wife Helga rented a bedroom apartment in San Francisco.
Feeney adhered to the “giving while living” philosophy, joking “I want the last cheque to bounce”. In 2020, he shut down Atlantic Philanthropies, having dispersed his fortune. He kept $US2m – equating to 1/4000th of his lifetime wealth. In 2022, he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia – the nation’s highest civilian honour. He died on October 9, 2023, aged 92.
His story is especially inspirational at a time when the Australian government has set a target to double philanthropy by 2030. This means building a stronger culture of giving – from school programs such as Kids in Philanthropy to mainstream programs such as workplace giving through to elite programs such as the Giving Pledge and Pledge One Percent.
Recently, Philanthropy Australia hosted its biennial Philanthropy Meets Parliament summit, bringing together charities, foundations and donors to discuss how to boost giving in Australia. The goal of expanding giving attracted support from across the parliament, and attendees discussed a wide range of ways to build support for donations.
One of the main ways that the government is looking to deliver on our goal is through a once-in-a-generation review of philanthropy by the Productivity Commission. The commission will hand down its draft report later this year, with the final report due next year. They will consider not just Australia’s tax settings, but also how to shape the values and norms that support a culture of giving back.
As Assistant Minister for Charities, I have argued that boosting philanthropy is about the three Es – enthusiasm, ease and evidence. We need to make clear that giving is fun, and that the pleasure of helping others is part of a good life. We need to make it straightforward to donate, by fixing outdated charitable fundraising laws and facilitating simple approaches such as payroll donations. And we need to build the evidence around what works, so that donors know that they’re changing lives for the better.
Not everyone can afford to give to charity. The global inflation challenge has put many households under pressure. But for those who can spare a few dollars, this is also a time when charities need help. From foodbanks to animal shelters, community organisations are experiencing increased demand for their services, and could really use your help.
Between now and the end of the decade, we’re not just looking to boost donations, but also to rebuild community life.
There’s room for plenty more James Bonds of Generosity in the Australian giving community.
Published in the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday on the 20th of December 2023.