Education Funding

Grants From Anonymous Donor Have Benefited Children, Schools

By Bess Keller — February 05, 1997 2 min read
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Charles F. Feeney doled out his millions more than a decade ago, but hardly anyone knew.

Until late last month, only a few people knew that the philanthropic operation Mr. Feeney secretly set up in 1984 has since given away more than $600 million, about a sixth of it benefiting children and schools.

The giving was so shrouded in secrecy that beneficiaries couldn’t even guess that the granting organization--let alone Mr. Feeney, who made his fortune with a chain of airport duty-free shops--was behind it.

Mr. Feeney revealed the existence of his Bermuda-based charitable foundations, the Atlantic Foundation and the Atlantic Trust, because the duty-free stores were sold last month to LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the company that makes Moet & Chandon Champagne. The transaction created records that could become public.

The foundations, which are not subject to U.S. disclosure requirements in the United States, have amassed assets valued at more than $3.5 billion, which would make them the fourth-largest charity in the United States, behind only the Ford, Kellogg, and Robert Wood Johnson foundations.

Mr. Feeney, 65, was born in Elizabeth, N.J., and is the grandson of Irish immigrants. Colleagues say he shies away from the attention that goes with wealth and generosity. Though he’s long been described as a billionaire, his own assets are now said to be about $5 million.

About a quarter of the Atlantic foundations’ grants have gone abroad, and about half of those to Irish groups, including several Irish universities. The largest share of the donations, almost half, has been awarded to higher education, 15 percent to organizations devoted to children and youths, and 8 percent to groups promoting philanthropy and volunteerism.

The foundations will continue to make grants anonymously and seek beneficiaries rather than accept unsolicited proposals, said a spokesman for Atlantic Philanthropic Service Company Inc., a New York City firm set up by Mr. Feeney that provides staffing for the Atlantic foundations.

Words of Praise

Recipients of past donations had nothing but praise for Mr. Feeney’s charitable operations.

James Kelly, the president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in Southfield, Mich., called Mr. Feeney “a role model for the [new] zillionaires in the knowledge industry.” The board has received Atlantic foundation grants that total between $1 million and $10 million to promote teaching standards and encourage more teachers to seek board certification.

Michael H. Brown, the president and co-founder of the Boston-based youth-service organization City Year, said the Atlantic foundations are “clearly committed to helping organizations meet their potential. ... They want to make a strategic investment.”

One of the foundations’ three grants to City Year helped it set up a visitors’ program, which has brought thousands of people to Boston to see what youth service can accomplish. One of those visitors was presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992, Mr. Brown said. City Year became a model for youth service that President Clinton eventually used in founding the AmeriCorps program.

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