US-Irish philanthropy: giving for greater good

Billionaire Charles ‘Chuck’ Feeney, founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies in 1982; by the time it fully ceases operations, the foundation will have made grants of more than $8bn.

John Daly retraces the long history of business people underpinning Irish and US networks

Irish American philanthropy goes right back to the beginning of the United States, notably the Society of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick since its inception in Philadelphia in 1771.

The society has been an active and vibrant organisation within the Irish community in its aims to promote Irish culture, education and provide aid.

Washington’s approval

“I accept with singular pleasure, the ensign of so worthy a fraternity as that of the Sons of St Patrick in this city — a society distinguished for the firm adherence of its members to the glorious cause in which we are embarked.”

So said General George Washington, an adopted member in 1782, seven years before he would become president. 

Throughout the first century of its existence, the society inspired its members to aid the victims of starvation, eviction and exile from Ireland, which was most true in the 1840s with the Great Famine.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the Society extended aid to victims of floods and natural disasters. The Johnstown flood of 1889, the San Francisco earthquake, the Russian Jewish Relief Fund and victims of the Spanish-American War all received assistance.

And always, the fidelity to Ireland remained — as evidenced during the birth of an independent Irish state in 1920, the Society provided $5,000 for relief of those who suffered due to hostilities.

As recently as 2012, the St Rose Catholic School in Belmar, New Jersey — badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy — received a $15,000 donation from the local chapter of the Society of the Friendly Sons of St Patrick.

The Ireland Funds

The Ireland Funds is a global philanthropic network established in 1976 to “promote and support peace, culture, education and community development throughout the island of Ireland, and Irish-related causes around the world.”

With chapters in 12 countries, it has raised more than $600 million for deserving causes in Ireland and beyond, benefiting more than 3,200 different organisations.

In 1976. Dan Rooney, the former US Ambassador to Ireland and owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, along with fellow Pittsburgh businessman Anthony JF O’Reilly, created what was then The Ireland Fund. 

With a trinity of goals — peace, culture and charity — The Ireland Fund appealed for support for Ireland and its people from all Americans, but especially those of Irish descent.

In the following decade, The Ireland Fund formed a thriving fundraising network of chapters across the US, in cities including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Palm Beach, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Diego and Washington DC.

On St Patrick’s Day 1987, The Ireland Fund and the American Irish Foundation, founded by Irish President Eamonn De Valera and US President John F Kennedy, merged at a White House ceremony to form The American Ireland Fund.

The network has grown in scope, mission and reach. Today, The Ireland Funds are active in 12 countries globally, still focused on their core mission to deliver private philanthropic support to worthy causes which promote peace and reconciliation, arts and culture and education and community development.

Loretta Brennan Glucksman.

Loretta Brennan Glucksman

Loretta Brennan Glucksman, emeritus chairman of the Ireland Funds, and widow of former Lehman Brothers CEO and chairma,n Lewis Glucksman, have continued the Irish American fundraising from the 1980s to the present day.

Along with Chuck Feeney, billionaire founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies, billions have been raised for peace, education and cultural causes in Ireland, north and south.

A fourth generation Irish American herself, and who has served on many boards, including the IDA and University of Limerick, Loretta Brennan Glucksman points out: 

“Philanthropy is not easy, it’s a hustle. You have to be able to say to someone, give me this, you’re not going to need that $1m.”

In July, 2017, she became the second recipient of the Kennedy-Lemass medal — an award honouring a US Leader of Irish heritage who has helped strengthen the Irish-US relationship.

“If we are looking for a testament to the fine traditions of Irish America, we need look no further than Loretta Brennan Glucksman,” said Reece Smyth, Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy who said that the philanthropic efforts by Ms Brennan Glucksman in the educational and cultural space were “profound”.

Chuck Feeney

“Chuck has set an example — he is my hero and Bill Gates’ hero. He should be everybody’s hero.” These words by Warren Buffett are an apt description of Chuck Feeney — otherwise known as ‘the man who gave all his billions away’.

Driven by a belief that the best use of one’s wealth is to help people, Feeney founded The Atlantic Philanthropies in 1982; by the time it fully ceases operations, the foundation will have made grants of more than $8bn.

Born in 1931 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, his mother was a nurse, his father an insurance underwriter. Chuck — who shoveled snow and sold Christmas cards door-to-door as a child to make money — was the first of his Irish-American family to go to university. 

Following a four-year stint as a radio operator for US Air Force intelligence in Japan, the GI Bill allowed him to attend Cornell University. 

Bill Gates.

There he was known as the “sandwich man” for selling bologna sandwiches to hungry classmates — two slices of bread, one piece of meat.

One such classmate was Robert Miller, with whom he co-founded Duty Free Shoppers in 1960, the company that made both men billionaires. While being successful in business was satisfying to him, Feeney was uncomfortable with the trappings of great wealth.

Inspired by his mother’s charitable impulse and later by Andrew Carnegie’s essay, Wealth, which argued that the best use of one’s wealth was to help others, Feeney founded The Atlantic Foundation in 1982, the first of The Atlantic Philanthropies. There was one catch, however: Feeney wanted Atlantic’s giving to be anonymous.

“The desire for anonymity was a combination of Chuck’s humility and a desire to fly under the radar and be nimble,” says Christopher G Oechsli, Atlantic’s president and CEO since 2011.

He wanted to meet people, talk, learn and act without attracting a lot of attention or recognition.

Following his initial forays in giving and after taking into account his and his family’s personal needs, Feeney was determined to devote almost all of his wealth to philanthropy.

In 1984, his DFS shares — then conservatively valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars — were irrevocably transferred to Atlantic.

Yet, because of his insistence on anonymity for the first 15 years of Atlantic’s grantmaking, very few knew the source of the funding, and those who knew were sworn to secrecy.

Feeney was always seeking promising investment opportunities in historically under-appreciated and undervalued places: Limerick; DaNang, Vietnam; Queensland, Australia; the Western Cape in South Africa, among others.

“I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t helping people,” was his mantra.

Among those inspired by Feeney’s generosity were Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who cite him as inspiration for the Giving Pledge.

“Chuck’s longstanding commitment to Giving While Living has been a guidepost for Melinda and me,” said Gates. “Chuck has been a beacon to us for many years.”

Although he had already given it all away to Atlantic to be deployed during his lifetime, Feeney became the 59th billionaire to sign The Giving Pledge and also urged others to do the same.

In his 2011 acceptance letter he wrote: “I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living — to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition. Any money that people give to good causes, as long as it is well-managed, is worthwhile.”

Changing face of US Irish giving

“Irish-America remained very aware of conditions in Ireland during much of the 19th and early 20th century, and provided financial assistance when it was thought necessary,” explains Dr John Borgonovo, School of History, UCC (pictured).

“Irish political organisations like the Irish Land League, the Irish Parliamentary Party, and Sinn Féin were bolstered by Irish-American dollars, as were cultural organisations like the Gaelic League and GAA.

This type of philanthropy typically comes from long-standing Irish-American cultural centres, among Americans who feel connected to their Irish ancestry.

Many of those Irish-American communities have faded, and in many cases disappeared entirely during the last half century, except in a few places that still experience Irish emigration, like Boston, New York, and San Francisco. So you have to wonder where a new generation of Irish-American philanthropists will come from.”

The Northern Ireland Troubles was a critical element in Irish-American fundraising, he says, where appeals to assist in peace and reconciliation found a response that extended beyond Irish-American community networks.

However, the success of the peace process in Northern Ireland has removed much of the urgency of that kind of fundraising.

"On 2019, Ireland enjoys a high standard of wealth and stability, so one must ask what makes it more deserving of philanthropy than other places and other causes.

"Here in Ireland, Irish-America is often seen as the goose that keeps laying the golden egg. And there is an assumption that Irish-America will always be there as a resource.

"But owing to changes in Irish emigration patterns, that is a dangerous assumption to make.

"Those cultural links need to be nurtured, otherwise you risk losing them and all they bring.”

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