By Patricia Whelan PR and Marketing Consultant, BSK
This year I am spending Ramadan in my home country of Ireland. It’s the first time in 26 years that I have not spent Ramadan in Kuwait. When I left Ireland 26 years ago Ramadan was almost an unknown religious month in this part of the world. Today it is observed by a growing number of Muslims living in Ireland as evidenced by the Irish Ramadan schedule which includes the Iftar timings for 33 towns, including my hometown of Dundalk. What an advance. Thankfully with Iftar beginning at 21.23 on day 1 it will not affect me but nonetheless it’s a welcome indication of the multicultural nature of Irish society in today’s global world. As we know fasting is one aspect of Ramadan. Another aspect is charity and I was reminded of this when I recently attended a presentation on a well- known Irish American philanthropist, Chuck Feeney. The link between charity and philanthropy is a focus in the life of this remarkable man.
If we accept the definition of philanthropy as being private initiatives for the public good focusing on a greater quality of life for the individuals in society then we can look no further than Chuck Feeney to see how and why this is possible. Chuck’s philosophy of life is summed up in a sentence when he remarked that I strongly believe in giving while living. He saw little reason to delay giving when so much good can be achieved through supporting worthwhile causes today. “I don’t dislike money, but there’s only so much money you can use, “ he stated.
Chuck Feeney achieved his life’s ambition of giving while living. His company, Atlantic Philanthropies, has invested $8 billion in philanthropy. Today at 86 years of age Chuck and his wife Helga live in a modest two bedroom apartment in San Francisco. He is a man of no property. He has no car or luxuries of any kind. His watch is plastic and cost $5. He became a billionaire in the 1960s through the company he founded – Duty Free Shoppers. All of us who pass through the world’s airports can thank Chuck Feeney for the hours of pleasure we experience in the land of duty free. Why did he give it all away? “It was the right thing to do,” he said. He was greatly influenced by Andrew Carnegie’s essay The Gospel of Wealth with its famous declaration that “the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor.”
In 30 years Chuck Feeney’s money transformed all Irish universities, revolutionized high-level research and supported the peace process and countless community causes in the north and south of Ireland.
His peripatetic lifestyle led him also to Vietnam and Australia where, as in Ireland, he became the biggest donor in history, and to Cuba and South Africa. His final initiative in 2016 was the allocation of $600 million to promote a generation of global Atlantic Fellows to create fair, healthy and inclusive societies long into the future. Now in his eighties his travelling days are over but he can reflect how his example has exploded in philanthropy.
His insistence on travelling economy class, arriving with his belongings in a plastic bag have led to many legendary stories. So also has his piercing gaze as he asked the question no one else wanted to face. Chuck Feeney got great satisfaction in giving money away. He also had great fun and made great friends.
In a Harvard study linking giving and happiness researchers found that when we give two parts of the brain connected to our dopamine reward circuitry show activity. Chuck Feeney believed that philanthropy was for everybody. Everyone can give according to their means. Those who give will get more out of the experience than they put in and people get an enormous sense of personal contribution from their giving, not only of money but of investments of time as well.
But the real motivator behind philanthropic gestures has to be an engagement with a particular cause and the power of philanthropy to bring social change cannot be underestimated. I am reminded of someone dear to me who often chided me for encouraging him to buy new suits on a regular basis. Why do I need a wardrobe full of suits he would ask when I can only wear one suit at a time? Why indeed but the answer of course is that suits and other material goods can all be recycled and given to others as part of a philanthropic gesture. Ramadan is a great time to focus on philanthropy and follow in the footsteps of Chuck Feeney by giving while living.