It is a comic story because our experience is that the poor want to become rich, and the rich, unlike Leacock’s unusual stockbroker, never want to turn poor. It is so easy to answer the question of who wants to be a millionaire: everybody. The answer is easy, but it is wrong.
Let me tell you who doesn’t want to be a millionaire. In fact, he was much more than a millionaire. He was worth $8 billion, according to Forbes magazine’s well-researched listing of the world’s richest people. Now Forbes reports that he has achieved his unusual ambition: not to be a billionaire. He has given away the $8 billion.
Charles Feeney came from a modest Irish American family and made his fortune in the sixties, at a time when duty-free selling was not widely known, by creating a vast network of duty-free stores in airports and strategic cities. But, as his wealth grew, he conceived the idea of giving it away and started The Atlantic Philanthropies so that he could do it without fanfare. He began quietly moving all his money to the foundation.
Education and health were his favorite areas because he believed he could make a visible difference in people’s lives. He made the biggest donation to his school that it had ever received and gave $1 billion to his university, Cornell. He added another $3.5 million as his last gift so that Cornell could start a technical campus on New York’s Roosevelt Island. He also donated $1 billion to universities in Ireland.
He donated $700 million to improve healthcare and $176 million to the Global Brain Health Institute, and, most unexpectedly, gave $270 million to Vietnam to improve its public health. I particularly like that he gave $870 million to improve human rights and bring about social change. He donated $62 million for my favorite cause, the abolition of an atrocious relic, the death penalty, and gave $76 million to President Obama’s effort to extend health services in the US.
Dramatically but worthily, Forbes calls him the James Bond of Philanthropy. Because his style of charity was not only unorthodox, it was also secretive. Unlike most donors who have their names inscribed on the receiving institution’s wall or even have a building renamed, Feeney made generous donations but left it open for other donors’ names to be publicized. He loathed blowing his horn.
While he was giving away millions, he lived in a rented apartment and owned neither a house nor a car. He is now 89 but travels always in the economy class and wears a $10 Casio watch. He has kept a small sum of money to live on, for himself and his wife, and donated his entire wealth.
Feeney’s biggest contribution may have been an idea. Rich people, if they give at all, set up a foundation that disburses to charities after their death. Feeney spurned the idea and started giving money to causes he believed in and happily oversaw its proper use and beneficial results. His astounding example prompted Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to start their famous campaign, Giving while Living, to persuade the rich to give up half of their wealth while they are alive to help the needy.
Why am I writing about Charles Feeney, a man I have never seen or met? Because his is the kind of breathtaking story I love to read and to share. Because my heart lifts and my spirit soars to think of a man, one of the richest in the world, whose joy has been getting rid of his money and helping the helpless, in his own country and in others. His generosity has been matchless and incredible; he gave until there was nothing left to give.
Maybe his story will inspire a few others, especially those who live in opulent mansions a stone’s throw from brutal slums – in India all such mansions are not far from such slums – to look around and give a moment’s thought to the malnourished child who has never known a decent meal, the penniless student who dreams of going to college, the pregnant village girl whose life is in mortal danger for want of rudimentary medical help. Maybe this story will prompt some rich person to think a little differently, and some ordinary person, rendered bankrupt by the pandemic, to receive the help he or she needs – just in time.