He should be everybody's hero

Meet the man who inspired both Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

We’ve had a ton of new subscribers recently. Thank you and welcome to Understandably! Speaking of which, if you like this newsletter and you know other people who would enjoy it, too, please share it and encourage them to subscribe.

Now, onto today’s newsletter…


A lot of people look up to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. But who do Buffett and Gates look up to?

It's not a trick question. There's one specific person they've both referred to as their “hero.”

His name is Chuck Feeney. And if that doesn't ring a bell, it's by design.

Feeney is multi-billionaire.

Actually, make that a former multi-billionaire.

He co-founded a chain of duty-free shops (the kind you see in airports), and later made it his life's mission to donate every cent he'd ever earned to charity.

In other words, having made billions, his goal was to die broke. 

He did it all very quietly for years, even anonymously, trying not to draw attention. His quest eventually became known, however. Last month, Feeney reached his big milestone: $8 billion donated, virtually his entire fortune, by the age of 89.

“To those wondering about giving while living,” Feeney said, during the meeting when he signed the papers to dissolve his foundation, since it no longer has any assets, “Try it. You'll like it.”

For Buffett and Gates, there's another milestone date that explains their awe and reverence for Feeney.

That would be May 5, 2009, the date of a dinner they both attended at Rockefeller University in New York. Feeney was there, along with Oprah Winfrey, then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg, David Rockefeller (the host), and about a dozen other billionaires. 

It was out of that meeting that Buffett and Gates teamed up to announce the Giving Pledge, convincing 210 other billionaires (so far) to commit to give away at least half their net worth.

They were largely inspired by Feeney's quest.

“Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model,” Gates told Forbes, in an article that's since been reprinted on his GatesNotes site, “And the ultimate example of giving while living.”

A bit more about Feeney’s story: He grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, and later got his entrepreneurial start by selling tax-free alcohol to U.S. sailors stationed in Europe.

He teamed up with partners and bootstrapped his business, eventually growing it all around the world.

By 1988, Feeney was described as a billionaire, although by then he'd already secretly started funneling his money out of his own holdings and into charity.

His goal was revealed in 1997, when LVMH bought his company, and Feeney: 

…reluctantly gave up his anonymity, but in the process gained a better tool for good: A powerful following. Two of the world's richest men, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, credit Feeney as a major inspiration for both the...Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Giving Pledge.

I've written before about how it was Gates's mother, the late Mary Gates, who cajoled him on July 5, 1991 to have lunch with Buffett for the first time.

That meeting lasted several hours, and it planted the seeds for what I think is one of the most interesting second acts in modern history: Gates's turn as a titan of philanthropy, after having been a titan of tech.

It’s kind of cool to think that Buffett and Gates didn't come up with the whole idea themselves, however. Instead, like most of us, they had to find inspiration—even indirect mentorship—in someone else's actions.

As of this past summer, Buffett had given about $37 billion in Berkshire stock to charity, although he still has a net worth in excess of $60 billion. 

At 89, Feeney is slightly younger than Buffett. He and his wife reportedly now live in a fairly modest, rented apartment in San Francisco. He held onto about $2 million—.025% of his former net worth — to keep himself and his wife comfortable in their golden years.

You tell me though: What's worth more: the money or being remembered like this (Buffett’s words)?

“Chuck has set an example not only for people of my age but also younger generations

He will be an example 100 years from now or 200 years from now. His billions and billions of dollars touched millions of lives.

He is my hero. He is Bill Gates's hero. He should be everybody's hero.”

7 other things worth your time

  • The Pope on Saturday urged people to pull investments from companies that are not committed to the environment. Meanwhile, Mexico’s president has asked the Vatican to make a symbolic apology for abuses of Indigenous peoples during the conquest of Mexico in the 1500s.” (Reuters, LA Times)

  • As an American sports fan (well, casual), I’ve always been intrigued by the promotion and relegation system in overseas soccer. Imagine if the Boston Red Sox, who had one of the worst records in Major League Baseball this year, had to play in the minor leagues next year as a result. Anyway, the top teams in the English Premier League are now floating a plan to reduce the number of teams in the top league, and restructure payments to the weaker teams, all as a result of Covid. (NYT, $)

  • A Black man is suing the city of Galveston, Texas and its police department for $1 million after two mounted police officers handcuffed him and led him by rope through city streets, “as though he was a slave,” after a trespassing arrest. “This is gonna look really bad,” one of the officers said to the other during the arrest, as revealed on recently released body camera video. (Fox News)

  • President Trump told supporters last night he’s “tested totally negative,” after making his first public appearance since returning from Walter Reed. He spoke for 18 minutes before a crowd of about 400 at the White House. At least some of the people who attended were paid a stipend and had their travel expenses covered. (NYT, Yahoo News)

  • I don’t want to make this all about politics, but this is an enormous number: the Democrat running against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina raised $57 million in the third quarter of 2020 — a record not just for the fairly small state, but for literally any Senate race in U.S. history. (Axios)

  • A recent law school graduate needed an accommodation during the Illinois bar exam this year—because she was 38 weeks pregnant, and wound up giving birth halfway through last week. Brianna Hill, 28, got permission to take a single day (!) to recover before finishing the second half of the exam. She and newborn son, Cassius Phillip Andrew (6 pounds, 5 ounces), are doing fine. Fingers crossed for the exam results. (Good Morning America)

  • Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings begin today. The number of justices hasn’t changed since 1869—and I was curious why lawmakers back then settled on nine justices to begin with. So I looked it up. It turns out it’s because there were nine federal judicial circuits back then, and the idea was to have one justice per circuit. Today, there are 13 circuits—but the court hasn’t been expanded to match. Hmmmm. (Me, pointing this out on Twitter, and citing the Federal Judicial Center.)

Leave a comment

The photo of Chuck Feeney comes from Cornell University. I've explored how Gates and Buffett lauded him in the past on Inc.com. If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, what are you waiting for? Please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to signup@understandably.com. And now, you can also get it by text at (718) 866-1753.

And of course, please share Understandably! Seriously, that’s the #1 thing we need right now, is for people who enjoy this newsletter to encourage friends and family to sign up as well. Thank you!

Share Understandably

One-click review and feedback: