Feeney’s challenge to Nigerian billionaires

OVER the last 37 years, Chuck Feeney has given away $6.2billion to charity. But that is not the gist. The news is that this Irish-American, who has earned $7.5billion from the sale of cognac, cigarette and perfume in his duty free shops, is obsessed by the desire to die penniless. He has designed a philanthropic programme that will see the $1.3 billion left of his fortune wholly donated to charity and the vehicle for his philanthropy, The Atlantic Philanthropies, wound down by 2020.

Eighty eight-year old Feeney, who never advertises his donations, makes money to help the society, not to stash away or lavish on self. He neither owns a house nor a car. His look is nondescript. He abhors extravagance. He travels in coaches “because first class won’t get me to my destination any faster.” He dons common wristwatches “because they keep time like a Rolex.” He has neither owned a private jet nor a yacht.

Just as he does not waste money on himself, Feeney does not throw his money at problems. His Atlantic Philanthropies carries out extensive research on the beneficiaries of his gesture to ensure the greatest value for every dollar given out. He is determined to ensure that only those who have the greatest need for his money with the promise of the greatest benefits to the society actually enjoy his largesse. Feeney encourages beneficiaries to compete for his donations. He insists on detailed business plans before doling out his money. If a project does not go according to projection, he cuts back on funding.

Feeney has supported many causes since 1982 when he started his philanthropic endeavour. He has supported the aged, infants, youths, schools, hospitals and more but two of his interventions stand out in my opinion.

Feeney is an intelligent philanthropist who always wants to stretch the value of every penny. In 1997, as a way of drawing the cash-strapped government of Ireland into increasing funding for its universities, he made a conditional pledge of $100 million to Ireland’s universities if only the government would match the amount. The government rose up to the challenge and much more than Feeney’s donation could have accomplished was achieved.

Then he has invested a lot of money in bridging the segregation that exists in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is a grossly divided society with different schools for different groups. To address this problem, Atlantic Philanthropies invested in integrated education in 1997 with the goal of enrolling 10 per cent of students in integrated schools; and, from 1997 to 2007, enrolment nearly doubled to 19,183.

To engage the remaining 90 per cent of students, Atlantic Philanthropies started, in 2006, the propagation of shared education, which promotes collaboration between existing segregated schools to share teachers and curricula. With funding provided by Atlantic Philanthropies, Queen’s University in Northern Ireland established a shared education programme, with 12 partnerships, 65 schools and 4,500 pupils. One partnership involved three all-girls schools in North Belfast, a low-income community. Later students from two Catholic schools began taking classes at the Protestant institution. The programme had achieved such a huge success that as of 2012, more than 10,500 pupils from 150 schools were participating in shared education classes on a routine basis. The pupils were able to forge friendships across communities and the stiffness and hostility in the community is on a downward slide.

There are three lessons for Nigerian billionaires from the philanthropic life of Feeney. The first is that our billionaires and philanthropists can achieve more for the society if they collaborate. If our super rich collaborate, they can rescue the education system or the health delivery system from collapse.  One is too small to be great or exceedingly impactful. Collaboration does not only always result in increased input; it also results in multiplied output. So, instead of each of the super rich trying to embark on uncoordinated intervention with limited impact, a number of them could come together to help out in a situation. If for instance, 10 of our billionaires decide to come to the aid of the University College Hospital, Ibadan or Lagos University Teaching Hospital or Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, what a great hospital that would be! No Nigerian would need to travel abroad for medical treatment on the ground of inadequate facility.

The second is that the rich should use their money for the greatest good of the society. Feeney used his money to find a lasting solution to the problem of segregation which Northern Island faces just as Bill Gates has committed himself to the eradication of polio. In the same vein, Nigerian billionaires should deploy their resources to finding lasting solutions to the many problems confronting the country. The billionaires can take up the challenge of researching into the causes of the current insurgency the country is battling with in the North. Nobody has taken up the challenge yet. The security forces are operating on assumptions; hence the insurgents are always a step ahead of them. The federal government’s strategy on tackling the problem has not produced any worthwhile result because it is based on guesswork.  The rich can show leadership in this respect by funding research which will show how we got into the problem and how we can exit it.

Finally, the rich should not wait till they die before giving out their money. Given the rate at which wills are contested in Nigeria, any allocation to charity in a will may be frustrated. So, it is better to give out the money while one is still alive.

According to Feeney, “Instead of waiting till you are old or dead before giving away your money, make substantial donations while you still have the energy, connections and influence to make waves. People who have money have an obligation. I wouldn’t say I’m entitled to tell them what to do with it, but they need to use it wisely.”

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