Chuck Feeney: The Billionaire “Purposely Going Broke”

Gift Intelligence

Chuck Feeney: The Billionaire Who Is Trying To Go Broke

He forces charities to compete for his cash, requesting detailed business plans with clear milestones and full transparency. If a project runs off course, Feeney cuts funding. He chooses programs that promise exponential returns that will allow people to lift themselves up. He pumps billions into university research in places like Ireland and Australia because he believes it creates a skilled workforce and attracts top talent, setting the table for high-tech industry and foreign direct investment. Operation Smile, a charity that corrects cleft palates in children from poor nations, is a classic Feeney cause: a one-time $250 investment to cover the cost of a simple surgery that will markedly improve every day of the patient’s life.

To further maximize return, Feeney leverages every dollar the foundation gives–using the promise of substantial gifts to force governments and other donors to match. In one famous example, in 1997 he proposed pledging roughly $100 million to Ireland’s universities but only if the cash-strapped government matched the amount. It did. (A total of $226 million in Atlantic grants have leveraged $1.3 billion of government money to its university system.) He works the same tactic with other wealthy people and development offices. Feeney never slaps his name on a library or hospital, since he can collect additional money for the project from more egocentric tycoons who gladly pay millions for the privilege.