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Charles Feeney: James Bond of Philanthropy

By Shlomo Maital


Charles Feeney

     I doubt readers have ever heard of Charles Feeney. Today’s New York Times tells his amazing story. It deserves to be widely known and imitated.

     Feeney will be 86 years old on April 23. Wikipedia recounts: He was born in New Jersey during the Great Depression and came from a modest background of blue collar Irish-American parents in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His ancestry traces to County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.

     He served as a U.S. Air Force radio operator during the Korean War, and began his career selling duty-free liquor to US naval personnel at Mediterranean ports in the 1950s. He attended Cornell University on the GI bill, and in 1960, based on his navy experience, set up a company that sold duty-free items to travelers. It became a booming success. He used some of his money to invest cleverly in high-tech startups, like Facebook, Priceline, E-Trade, Alibaba and Legent.

     But Feeney’s story is not about another successful entrepreneur. In 1984 he founded Atlantic Philanthropies, a collection of foundations – without revealing he was the benefactor – and transferred all his billions to it, and promised to shut it down, after giving away his entire fortune, $8 billion. Five years ago, he still had $1.5 b. left. Would he succeed, before his passing? Yes. It is now officially all gone.

     And Feeney? He lives modestly with his wife, in a rented New York apartment.  He flies economy class. He eats in diners. He left himself $2 million.

       I have a somewhat personal link to Feeney. As a Cornell alum, he gave a huge sum, $350 m., to fund the Cornell-Technion project that will create a new high-tech university on Roosevelt Island, in Manhattan.

       His philanthropy has been effective. One of his grants proposed reforms to America’s healthcare system, which led to the Affordable Care Act. And Feeney has scrupulously avoided any limelight – his backing of the Atlantic Philanthropies was revealed against his wishes. His secretiveness led to the “James Bond” appellate.

       The New York Times article uses the story of Feeney to provide a backhanded slap at Donald Trump, who typifies the diametric oppositse of everything Charles Feeney stands for and accomplished.  

Why John Arnold Is Disliked for Giving Away Billions

By Shlomo Maital

John Arnold

John & Laura Arnold

   If you’re a billionaire, and are busy giving away your money for good causes, you should be widely known and beloved, right?   Well, John Arnold (and wife Laura, a lawyer) are billionaires, have a foundation that is giving away their money for good causes – and they are widely disliked. Why?

   Arnold made a fortune as a financial trader. His method:   Discover an idea, a truth, nobody else saw. Then bet everything you had on it.   In 2006 Arnold’s hedge fund Centaurus bet against natural gas prices. He was right. They fell. He made a fortune. In 2008 Arnold bet on a commodities price crash. He was right. Commodities fell. Three years ago, at age 38, and worth $4 billion, Arnold decided to spend the rest of his professional life giving away his fortune. The story is told by Bloomberg Business.

   Arnold and wife Laura decided to focus on problems “dragging down the nation that no one else wants to confront”. For instance: research integrity; drug-sentencing reform; organ donations; pension systems that are broken.  

   “I try to look at supply and demand,” Arnold explains. “Where is the need being met today, and where is there unmet demand?”.   Arnold, a moderate Democrat, believes a rich country like the U.S. should provide a high safety net for its citizens. At the moment, it does not.

   Why is Arnold unpopular? Mainly for his work on pension reform. Fixing the pension system means slashing payments to people who need and were promised them. Without the changes, the Arnolds say, both governments and pensioners have no future.

   Arnold was used to being unpopular as a financial trader. He accepts the criticism of him as philanthropist. His method? Find “leverage points in the system”, and create “higher potential for value added”.

   Want to help people? Give away money?  It may well bring sharp criticism, when only love and praise are expected. Be prepared for it. You can be punished for doing good, if you rile vested interests. In fact, the more good you do, the angrier some people will become.

   Source: Dan Murtaugh, Bloomberg News, Nov. 19, 2015

Pierre Omidyar: from eBay to Philanthropy

By Shlomo Maital   


Pierre Omidyar is well known as the pioneering founder of eBay.  That company, after it was acquired, made him immensely wealthy; by the time he was 30 he was a billionaire.  Today, he is 46,  and he is deploying fully $1 b. of his fortune for philanthropy.  But unlike Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, who spent $250 m. to buy the Washington Post,  Omidyar is spending $250 m. to revolutionize the media.

  According to the Economist (the Schumpeter column),  “… in 2004 Mr Omidyar replaced his foundation with a new organisation, Omidyar Network, which sees itself as an active investor, not a passive donor, and is free to put money equally into for-profit and non-profit ventures. Almost half of the 300 or so outfits it has backed aimed to make money—though Mr Omidyar has said that any profits will be recycled, with none going back to him.”  

   The Economist continues:   “With the non-profits it backs, ranging from Kiva, a microfinance website, to the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes open government, Omidyar Network practises “venture philanthropy”—developing a non-profit start-up in the same way as a new business venture, except for not expecting it to make money one day. Typically, foundations have given funds for a specific project rather than to build the capabilities of the charity itself, which makes it hard for the charity to hire and retain talented people. In contrast, the network not only provides money for its charities’ general budget, it has a human-resources department that helps them find good staff. This service seems to be universally appreciated by the charities Mr Omidyar backs, some of which say it is more valuable than the money they get. Although there are several other successful venture-philanthropy organisations, such as New Profit Inc (which helped develop the Teach for America charity), none comes close to the scale of Omidyar Network, which makes it the crucial test case for the idea.”

      Omidyar ‘invented’ on-line commerce. Now he seeks to reinvent philanthropy.   He seems to have put his finger on a key failing of many social enterprises – good management, proper staffing.  We wish him well.


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital