As Alexander the Great lay dying he made a number of wishes, including a wish that his hands should hang loosely by his coffin, and all the riches he had accumulated during his life should be strewn along the procession to his grave. He wanted people to understand what he had grasped too late — we come into and leave the world empty handed. Whatever we have accumulated is left behind.
I was reminded of this recently when I read that the Irish American philanthropist, Chuck Feeney, at 89 years of age, signed the documents that closed the foundation he had set up nearly 40 years ago, Atlantic Philanthropies. Over those years his foundation gave $8 billion in grants to charities, universities, hospitals, health care in America, Ireland, Britain, Bermuda, Australia, South Africa, Cuba, and Vietnam.
I have great admiration for Mr. Feeney’s philosophy of life. He came from very humble beginnings, and as a young child was always looking for ways to make some money for himself and his family. He did whatever it took, selling Christmas cards door to door, caddying on the local golf course, selling sandwiches in college. He had a flair for seeing opportunities and making the most of them. He made his fortune through duty free shops in Hong Kong and Hawaii, which he established with a business partner in the 1960s. He loved the cut and thrust of making millions but was uncomfortable with the trappings of wealth. In his biography, Chuck Feeney, The Billionaire who Wasn’t, he said that by the early 1970s he was “beginning to have doubts about his right to have so much money.” He believed that those with wealth should use it during their lifetime to help others, a concept that became known as Giving while Living. He was inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s essay, The Gospel of Wealth, which advocated that “the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor.”
When he set up Atlantic Philanthropies in November 1984, he didn’t just sign over a percentage of his wealth, he signed it all over, including all his business shareholdings and properties. The story goes that he celebrated with a fish and chip dinner with his family. Chuck Feeney didn’t only give his wealth to the foundation, he also gave his time. He travelled all over the world — flying economy and using buses and trains — assessing and advising the causes he made grants to, to ensure they were viable and sustainable. In all of this he tried to remain anonymous. While investing millions in these projects he, himself, was known to wear a €10 Casio watch, and frequently carried whatever he needed in a simple plastic carrier bag. None of his work has been for public recognition, in fact he has always shunned the limelight. He did it because he believed it was the right thing to do, his duty.
His message to the wealthy is: “You will get a lot more satisfaction giving it away when you are alive than when you are dead — try it, you’ll like it.” He inspired Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to launch what they called The Giving Pledge, a campaign to encourage the super-rich to donate at least half of their wealth to worthy causes.
The majority of us will never be in the super rich category, but we all have something to give. More important is how we give. Our giving must be effortless, but it should also cost us something. When we give by heart it is effortless, even if we have stretched ourselves to do it. Henri Nouwen, the Dutch writer and theologian, puts it well when he says: “”We have to think generously, speak generously and act generously.”
One brilliant young man whom I know personally comes to my mind when I think of true giving. On completing his studies at one of America’s top universities, he was offered many jobs with the potential to make millions. Instead, his giving heart chose to return to India to be in service and teach at a university where he can inspire future generations to come. This is true giving.
Finally, become like a tree that offers its branches for shelter, its fruit for food, its base as a place of rest, and very often its whole self when it is cut down for its timber. The tree doesn’t expect anything back, it is simply fulfilling its dharma.
In the words of Henry Ford: To do more for the world than the world does for you — that is success.”