The country's most secretive philanthropist avoided the world of private Gulfstreams and bespoke tailors, of society columns and personal attendants, in favor of flying coach and buying his clothes off the rack. It wasn't that the publicity-shy mogul wanted to hoard his stash for his children -- or that he feared losing it all and having to sell sandwiches out of a basket, the way he did when he was a scholarship kid at Cornell University.
Rather, his frugality -- the plastic bag that served as a briefcase, the drugstore reading glasses, his $15 plastic watch -- stemmed from an urgent desire to take the fortune that he sacrificed years of his life making and give it, nearly every cent, away. For nearly 15 years, this entrepreneur and silent benefactor wasn't even working for himself anymore: He had secretly transferred his share of the company that he co-founded and ran to his offshore foundation. It would become one of the biggest and most unusual philanthropic feats in history. But it came with one ironclad caveat: that no one should ever know his name.
To keep his identity secret, he went to obsessive lengths, incorporating his charitable foundation in Bermuda and attaching highly lawyered confidentiality agreements and cabal-like vows of secrecy to his foundation's grants. After the cashier's checks cleared, there were no black-tie galas, no self-effacing speeches.
It seemed like something out of Charles Dickens. Yet for more than a decade, New Jersey-born airport-gift-shop magnate Charles F. Feeney pulled it off, even concealing the fact of his giving from his longtime business partner. It was only when his Duty Free Shoppers was sold, in 1997, that the full extent of his largesse became clear. The shares that he had transferred 13 years earlier fetched $1.6 billion when the company was sold. Because Feeney, now 72, donated his stake in the company nearly 20 years ago, he doesn't qualify for inclusion in our ranking, although a gift of $1.6 billion today would land him at No. 4 on this year's list of the most generous philanthropists.
Chuck Feeney may be an extreme case, but he's far from alone in wanting to shield himself from the public's view. Operating alongside philanthropic superstars such as William H. Gates III and George Soros is a seldom-glimpsed group of contributors -- people who prefer to remain in the shadows rather than having their names carved in stone.
To give without a speck of recognition in a culture that worships self-celebration is seen as refreshingly, almost Biblically, altruistic. Indeed, anonymous gifts are one of the most ancient and esteemed philanthropic practices the world over. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have long considered blind donations the highest form of giving. That's because the donor gets no self-enriching ego dividend, no chance at reaping political or social favor -- and the receiver no sense of shame-ridden indebtedness. "Anonymity dissolves the power imbalances in these relationships," says Georgetown University philanthropy professor James Allen Smith. Organizations, meanwhile, don't carry the burden of having to put on thank-you galas or commissioning a bust of the donor.
This year, BusinessWeek sussed out a handful of these secret Medicis. They include such people as Tulsa oil-and-banking baron George Kaiser. At No. 22 on our list, this son of World War II refugees gave $287 million to early antipoverty programs but refuses all public accolades, including inductions into the Oklahoma and Tulsa Halls of Fame. There's also Maurice "Chico" Sabbah at No. 48, who pledged $100 million of the fortune he made in reinsurance to fund the country's first-ever non-Orthodox Jewish boarding school, the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, N.C. He managed to keep his philanthropy hidden until September 11 imperiled his fortune and outed his giving in the process. The terrorist attacks hit his company, Fortress Re, hard. Since then, Sabbah has been named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed in North Carolina by a Japanese insurance company, which alleges that Sabbah and his partner deceptively siphoned off millions from the insurance pool, a claim Sabbah denies.
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Many of our stealth givers are united in an utter distaste for publicity and a rejection of life as an acquisition spree. Some lead lives that are a striking foil to the consumption culture that surrounds them. Sabbah lives in a modest ranch house. Kaiser, who made his fortune in energy, banking, and real estate, described himself in a rare interview with Tulsa People Magazine as "anti-materialistic" and "uncomfortable and guilty about receiving recognition." For years, he tooled around town in a company beater. When he finally bought his first new car, in 1999, he splurged on a no-frills, two-door BMW. Feeney wonders aloud about the need for more than one pair of shoes. When he's in New York, he likes to eat the $10.95 chicken pot pie at Annie Moore's tavern. "It has always been hard for me to rationalize a 32,000-square-foot house or someone driving me around in a six-door Cadillac," says Feeney in his soft New Jersey staccato. "The seats are the same in a cab. And you may live longer if you walk."
Then there are other people for whom the full extent of their giving is still unknown. Fred Eychaner, founder of media company Newsweb Corp., remains an elusive force in Chicago charity circles. But he hasn't been shy about pledging more than $73 million over the years to Chicago-area causes, including AIDS, arts institutions, and Northwestern University's Medill Innocence Project, which helps free wrongly convicted death-row inmates. He is also one of the biggest contributors to the Democratic Party. Or Univision Communications (UVW ) Inc. CEO A. Jerrold Perenchio, one of Los Angeles' most generous invisible patrons and political donors. He has given heavily to the University of California at Los Angeles, although he keeps his name off lists of benefactors and, according to Los Angeles Magazine, insists that his wide-ranging circle of famous and influential friends keep mum when queried by the press.
If anything, giving in secret is even harder than just giving. Sometimes the sheer size of the gift makes anonymity impossible. After all, it's hard to move millions of dollars around without attracting attention. "That was not an option my son had," says Bill Gates Sr., co-chair of Gates's foundation.
Anonymity may help donors to blend into their communities and shield them from a barrage of requests and pleas, but it can bring its own set of problems, says Georgetown University's Smith. Secret gifts can undermine the social bonds that rise up between the giver and recipient. Anonymous givers can't become leaders who inspire other people with their charitable behavior, and they deprive foundations of the chance to use the gift as leverage to attract other donors.
All the problems of anonymous giving eventually came to bear on Chuck Feeney. When he first transferred to his foundation his 39% stake in a small, privately held chain of airport shops in 1984, hardly anyone noticed. After all, the shares were unpriced, and the company unremarkable. It was only when Duty Free Shoppers was sold 13 years later that Feeney drew attention. He should have been America's newest billionaire, but his $1.6 billion stake belonged to Atlantic Philanthropies. After long ago bestowing modest sums on each of his five children, Feeney is now worth just $1.5 million. Meanwhile, thanks to his astute management on behalf of Atlantic, the foundation's assets have ballooned to $3.7 billion, far too much to go undetected.
Feeney gave a single interview in 1997, then clammed up and disappeared again -- disappeared until recently, that is, when he showed up on our radar thanks to a little-noticed announcement by his foundation. At a time when other charities were resisting pressure from lawmakers to dispense more than the usual 5% of their endowments annually, Atlantic made an astonishing declaration: It planned to spend itself out of business over the next 12 to 15 years, giving away $350 million annually to four causes: disadvantaged children, aging, health, and human rights.
Feeney knew the announcement would eventually bring on the media. Besides, the requirement to protect his anonymity was causing greater and greater hardship for grantees. After months of interview requests, Feeney was finally ready to talk, confirming to BusinessWeek his gifts and philanthropic endeavors. His remarkable story, as well as those of our other philanthropists, show that whether it's done quietly or as a call to arms, the tradition of giving in America still runs deep.
By Michelle Conlin and Jessi Hempel, with David Polek in New York and Ron Grover in Los Angeles