New Works in the Field / Philanthropy

Chuck Feeney and the Complex Tri-Partite History of “Giving While Living”

Editors’ Note: The following is adapted from the introduction to a paper just published by the Atlantic Philanthropies, written by HistPhil co-editor Benjamin Soskis, on the history of “Giving While Living,” examined through the story of Chuck Feeney and the Atlantic Philanthropies. The paper is itself an excerpt from a larger monograph that analyzes the issue of “Giving in Time” through an exploration of the histories of “Giving While Living” and limited life philanthropy. (Photo of Chuck Feeney courtesy of Pascal Perich)

Chuck Feeney’s philanthropy, and that of the foundation he established, The Atlantic Philanthropies, has been defined by two exceptional decisions. On November 23, 1984, Feeney transferred to what was then called the Atlantic Foundation nearly all his personal fortune — mostly shares in Duty Free Shoppers (DFS), which he had co-founded two decades before—a gift valued at between $500 million and $1 billion. Then in January 2002, Atlantic’s board, following Feeney’s wishes, made a formal commitment to spend all the foundation’s assets, by then some $4 billion, in ten to fifteen years time. In December 2016, the foundation made its final grant, bringing the total awarded over 35 years to more than $8 billion. Atlantic will close its doors for good in 2020.

These decisions have come to represent two closely related commitments: the Giving While Living ethic and the embrace of limited-life philanthropy. The two are routinely chronicled as milestones on the same journey and are often conflated in journalistic accounts of Feeney’s philanthropy, such that the spend-down process is described as the ultimate fulfillment of “Giving While Living.” Yet there is a value in maintaining their distinctness. Each constitutes a certain approach to giving in time; each asserts particular beliefs about the timeframes and timespans that should govern philanthropy; each, in turn, can claim its own genealogy and moral foundations. This monograph will outline those genealogies and those foundations, placing each in broad historical context. In doing so, it can help explain how the ideas and practice of “Giving While Living” and limited life philanthropy have fed each other’s growth and overlapped in important ways. And it can also highlight the subtle tensions that have developed between the two, which can illuminate the underlying dynamics that shape the ways in which the wealthy give.

“Giving While Living,” as practiced by Feeney and enacted by Atlantic, is more complex than its neat three-word encapsulation would suggest. It is, in fact, an understanding of philanthropic responsibility woven from three intertwining strands. At its most basic, “Giving While Living” makes a transactional and temporal demand on the donor, requiring him or her to commit money to charitable causes before death. This condition can be satisfied quantitatively — with a bank account transfer and a pulse — as Feeney did in November 1984. Beyond this, there is also a qualitative dimension to “Giving While Living,” requiring the active engagement of the donor in administering or overseeing the gift. Finally, the ethic carries with it a promotional imperative. As philanthropists from Julius Rosenwald to Bill Gates have appreciated, “Giving While Living” must be performed in public; it is a charge fulfilled only when passed on to others. Each of these strands can claim its own history; each makes interventions into long-running debates over the responsibilities of wealth. In the case of Chuck Feeney and Atlantic, these strands have converged in powerful ways. But there are also significant tensions between them. How can one urge others to give while also respecting the personalism inherent in “Giving While Living”? Does a gift to a foundation, which might satisfy the first strand of the ethic, fulfilling the second, if the donor has little engagement with grant-making decisions and if much of the funds remain warehoused in endowment? Does “Giving While Living” require beginning one’s philanthropic journey after or during a business career? In practice, the Giving While Living ethic calls into question the relationship between the quest for personal fulfillment through giving and the pursuit of philanthropic impact, and between the private prerogatives and public mission of the philanthropist.

– Benjamin Soskis


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