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Cornell’s $350 Million Donor Feeney Plans to Give It All Away

Cornell’s $350 Million Donor Feeney Plans Give It All Away
Research towers and sloping lab buildings are oriented for the most efficient capture of solar energy in this proposal for a new engineering campus in New York City. Source: Skidmore Owings & Merrill via Bloomberg

Donating a record $350 million to Cornell University last week moved Charles Feeney closer to a life goal: giving away all of his fortune while still alive.

Feeney, 80, plans to shut by 2020 Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation he began bankrolling in 1984 by gifting his businesses, including shares of the Duty Free Shoppers Group chain he co-founded. The charity has about $2 billion in assets and has donated more than $5.5 billion for health programs, universities and causes worldwide, according to its website.

Cornell has been among the biggest beneficiaries, receiving almost $1 billion, including the gift announced Dec. 16 that will help pay for an engineering campus in New York City. Feeney graduated from Cornell’s school of hotel administration in 1956 and has helped pay for buildings, scholarships and research at the main campus in Ithaca, New York, for decades, said Ron Ehrenberg, an economist and former university vice president.

“Cornell has just been very, very fortunate to have him,” said Ehrenberg, who received $1.5 million from Feeney to support his work. “It is hard to envision the university without him.”

Feeney in February joined the Giving Pledge group that originated with Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffett. The campaign includes about 70 members who have agreed to donate more than half their wealth.

“I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living,” Feeney said in a letter to Gates and Buffett making his pledge.

Grant Making

Atlantic Philanthropies concentrates its grant-making on aging; children; population health; and reconciliation and human rights. It gave away $285 million in 2010, and $375 million the previous year, according to recent financial statements.

Feeney typically doesn’t seek public credit for his donations and his name isn’t on any Cornell buildings, Ehrenberg said. Most of his Cornell gifts are to projects recommended by the university’s president and provost, he said.

The $350 million gift was critical to Cornell winning New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s contest to lure an engineering school to the city, said Peter Meinig, chairman of Cornell’s board of trustees. The mayor -- founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News -- solicited bids in July for a competition that would offer use of city land on Roosevelt Island, in the East River, and $100 million for infrastructure improvements to build a science and engineering campus.

Major Project

“You’re talking about a major, major project,” Meinig said. “All universities today are operating under significant financial constraints. The fact that Chuck Feeney and Atlantic Philanthropies were willing to commit $350 million to this project gave us the ability to be very aggressive in the competition.”

Atlantic Philanthropies said in an e-mail that Feeney wasn’t available for an interview.

Cornell, partnering with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, beat out six competing bids from schools including Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University. Stanford pulled out of the contest Dec. 16, hours before Cornell announced Feeney’s gift as an anonymous donation. Feeney was revealed to be the donor Dec. 19.

Cornell plans to begin classes next year in leased space until the Roosevelt Island campus is completed. Cornell said it will move by 2017 and finish construction of more than 1.3 million square feet by 2027. By 2043, the campus will have 2,500 students and 280 faculty members, according to the university and the mayor’s office.

$1.5 Billion Construction

The project will cost about $1.5 billion, Cornell President David Skorton said at a Dec. 19 press conference. The university doesn’t plan on borrowing to finance the project and instead will rely on tuition and philanthropy, technology license fees and corporate partnerships, he said.

Feeney, the son of a nurse and insurance underwriter, grew up in a neighborhood on the western edge of Elizabeth, New Jersey, according to a 2007 biography written by Conor O’Clery, “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune.” He knew how to squeeze money out of work, and as a teenage golf caddy, sought out nine-hole players who paid the same tip of 25 cents as those using the full 18-hole course, according to the book.

Feeney owns neither a house nor a car, and takes a salary from the foundation that “covers his needs,” O’Clery said in a telephone interview. Feeney recently stopped flying coach, switching to business class after his charity’s board insisted because of health concerns, O’Clery said.

“He’s still shopping for the cheapest tickets, you can be sure of that,” O’Clery said.

Net Worth

While Forbes magazine in 1988 listed Feeney as the 23rd richest person in the world with assets of about $1.3 billion, the ranking was wrong, O’Clery said. Feeney had already signed over businesses to his philanthropy at a secret meeting in the Bahamas in 1984, according to O’Clery. The assets included spas in Thailand, retail stores in Hawaii and France, and property in the U.K.

Profit from those businesses added as much as $300 million annually to the foundation’s endowment, O’Clery said. In 1997, the foundation received about $1.6 billion after Feeney’s share of Duty Free Shoppers Group was sold, he said.

Feeney decided to acknowledge his philanthropy to encourage other wealthy donors to do the same, O’Clery said.

“He wanted his model of giving while living to be out there for other people of great wealth to use as a template,” the author said.

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