For the joy: giving while living
WORDS // Jennifer S. H. Smith
“How much do you think you could give to the project?” asked the director of philanthropy of an organization to which we regularly give. My husband and I glanced at each other trying to communicate telepathically. We’re not rich by our affluent suburban city’s standard. But we do have more than we need, and if we look on a global scale, we are insanely wealthy. Indeed, what would a generous gift be?
Generous giving often gets a bad rap (“The church is only interested in money!”) or no rap at all in today’s Christian circles. Many generous believers in Jesus give quietly, and the stories of how they made their money and how they give their money away would be considered too prideful to share.
Certainly, the Israelites in the Old Testament were commanded to give a tenth (tithe) of their wealth. But, that was only the beginning of their worship – other sacrifices and offerings were joyfully surrendered as well. The New Testament commands “cheerful” generosity, which is harder to quantify.
Most of us think of giving from our excess. When the bills are paid (including vacations, gym membership, entertainment, youth sports, Netflix, family gifts, date nights, yard service, cell phone, wine club, splurge funds, etc.) then we look at what is left—if anything is left at all—and determine how to divide it up.
What if we looked at the generosity equation differently?
Income Minus Giving = Living
Ever heard of Chuck Feeney?
Decades ago, this guy discovered in his own life the power of giving off the top, and from then on, his life has literally changed the world. This one guy that you probably haven’t even heard of completely transformed the healthcare of an entire nation. He dramatically altered the face of higher education in institutions around the world and helped to rectify the effects of racism and injustice.
The lives of literally millions of people have been helped by his life, and yet, not one building is named in his honor, and his name isn’t widely recognized. Bill Gates says Chuck Feeney is his hero and the inspiration behind the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (current value: $40 billion) – and yet, you wouldn’t recognize this guy on the street.
Intrigued? Here’s his remarkable, yet not-really-so-complicated story.
Born to a modest Irish immigrant family in the height of the Great Depression, Charles Francis “Chuck” Feeney served as a U.S. Air Force radio operator during the Korean War and, thanks to the GI Bill, was the first in his family to attend college. After graduating from Cornell University, he partnered with a classmate and began selling duty-free items to U.S. military personnel. His company, Duty-Free Shops, pioneered the concept of duty-free shopping throughout the world. The concept was wildly successful, making Chuck and his business partners millions, and launching Chuck and his family into a lavish lifestyle.
By 1980, Chuck began to see the effects the money was having on his family and attempted to make sure his kids still understood the value of hard work. Despite his efforts, Chuck felt like his wealth was beginning to crush his family life, and he began to become uncomfortable with the displays of material excess—multiple luxurious homes, cars, parties, and vacations. As he traveled the world, seeing the misery with which so many people live each day of their lives, the disquiet in his soul ballooned.
Now, if you’re like me, you might start to be impressed with what the tithe of a billion dollars could do. But for Chuck Feeney, a mere 10% simply wasn’t generous, nor could it do the bold, uncharted work of ending the conflict in Northern Ireland, propelling South Africa toward justice post-apartheid, or completely transforming healthcare in Vietnam, building hundreds of hospitals and clinics. What if Chuck gave in a radical, unheard-of way, living on what was left over, after extreme generosity?
A Radical Decision
“Even if I could, I would never have been able to spend all that money,” says Feeney. “I’m the type of guy who is happy with a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich.”
And so, Chuck made a radical decision. He decided to give away his entire $1 billion fortune and the shares of the company he founded.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” said his long-time friend and lawyer, Harvey Dale, in 1984.
“Let’s get on with it,” was Feeney’s hasty reply.
And so, Chuck Feeney—who had it all—gave it all away. He secretly transferred his entire stake in his company and all his assets to a charitable foundation he founded, called The Atlantic Philanthropies, keeping only a modest allotment for his family. He now flies economy-class. He wears a $15 drugstore wristwatch. He sold his lavish homes and lives in San Francisco with his wife, Helga, in a modest rented apartment. He does not own a car.
“You can only wear one pair of pants at a time,” he says.
James Bond of Philanthropy
The transaction was kept in complete secrecy for the better part of 20 years; not even his business partners knew that he no longer owned any part of the company he founded. It wasn’t until a business dispute arose that his generosity was revealed and Chuck finally admitted that he no longer possessed billions. His secrecy – and success – led Forbes Magazine to dub Feeney “The James Bond of Philanthropy.”
For years, the foundation’s support came with the requirement that the beneficiaries not know where the money came from. Although he built thousands of hospitals, university research facilities, and schools, not one building bears Chuck Feeney’s name. “This is a way to leverage more donations—that someone else could donate enough to secure the naming rights,” says Bruce Trachtenberg of The Atlantic Philanthropies.
As if this story weren’t incredible enough, shrewd investing of Chuck’s fortune, including early investments in companies like Facebook, Priceline, E-Trade, and Legent, continued to multiply Chuck’s generosity and legacy. Like the parable Jesus told of the servants who were each given talents, and to the one who wisely invested, more was given, Chuck’s fortune, now completely invested in charity, swelled to nearly $8 billion—all to be given away.
It’s the question the (very few) lucky ones who get to speak personally with Chuck always ask. (For he never seeks publicity, refuses to meet with reporters, and has only done a handful of interviews in the 36 years since the foundation was formed.) Why did he do it?
“Money wasn’t adding anything to his life,” says Trachtenberg, adding that the satisfaction Chuck received traveling the world looking for the next “big thing” his money could accomplish (or eradicate) was far greater than the satisfaction the wealth gave him when it was still in his pocket.
“The more he gave, the more he enjoyed life.”
And so, the formula was just that simple. Giving to those in need brought great joy, and so Chuck gave and gave and gave, until the money was gone. Living by his motto, “Giving While Living,” Chuck Feeney’s foundation doled out its final donation in 2017, and will close its doors in 2020 when Chuck is nearly 90 years old.
Feeney writes, “I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living—to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition.”
What’s in Your Wallet?
It’s not just high-interest credit cards that want to know what’s in your wallet. Our good, good Father, the lover of our souls knew that the recipe for soul happiness was not in getting, but in giving away: giving away money, giving away time, giving away talent, giving away your life, for the sheer joy of it in this life, and for the hope of the stored-up treasure that awaits us in heaven.
Matthew 6:19-21 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Have you ever wondered what percentage of their wealth they give away?
- Bill Gates = 32% (ranked #1 generous)
- Mark Zuckerberg = 4%
- Jon Huntsman Sr. = 128%
- Jeff Bezos = 0.01%
- Warren Buffet = 35%
- Charles Francis Feeney = 420,000%
Take The GENEROSITY Survey
Grab your spouse and each of you fill out one side of the quick survey below. Then talk about it.
Communication is key when giving with your other half. Get on the same page & make a plan!
I feel we are very generous.
Yes or No
I feel we could give more.
Yes or No
If our financial giving was made public I would feel:
Proud / Content / Embarrassed
I feel we could give more of our:
Time / Talents / Treasures
I feel ready to be more generous!
Current ______% vs New ______%