It was only after I became Prime Minister that I came to know the full extent of what Chuck Feeney was doing around the country. Flying under the radar, he had invested over A$426 million ($317.4 million) in 25 educational and research facilities in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. He is well loved by those who know what he is up to, but the challenge with Chuck is he doesn’t want you to know.
Once, during a long lunch conversation, he had made it clear he wanted to work with government and saw us as a partner. In his view, it was very important to have buy- in by all levels of government and all political persuasions. Without that level of cooperation, he said, the projects will not be properly valued. Shared funding, he said, was the best way to build a supportive constituency.
Atlantic’s investments started at the Queensland University campus when an administrator there proposed an institute of molecular bioscience in the late 1990s. Chuck got wind of the idea and put up A$10 million ($6.1 million). Queensland state government promptly kicked in A$15 million ($9 million), and the federal government in Canberra offered another A$15 million. Then the university itself directed A$15 million more to the project.
He was proud of the fact that in Australia, every Atlantic grant was approximately one-third of the total project cost: “One-third from us, one-third from the institution and one-third from the government.” All told he leveraged more than a half billion dollars on donations from Atlantic.
Chuck also loved to expound on his theory of philanthropy. So I organized a group of high-wealth Australians so he could make his pitch for Giving While Living. I will never forget that meeting. We had a tableful of rich Australians, and Chuck, in his well-worn suit and well-worn shoes, regaling them with his fervent belief that giving all your money away before you go was the best course of action. It was a brilliant presentation, and the participants suddenly felt the pressure turning on them. I have never heard such audible clearing of throats as they slunk deeper into their chairs. I’m not sure we loosened a single dollar that day, but it was great fun to watch their reactions to this interesting, mildly disheveled man as he hammered his message home.
On many occasions, I have told Chuck that we had to honor him for all he had done for Australia. I planned to give him the Honorary Award of Australia, which is bestowed a couple of times a year to deserving non-Australian nationals. I personally submitted the application, endorsed it and sent it to the Governor-General who, after examining all the facts, approved the award. But Chuck, in his inimitable way, refused to accept it and told us to find someone else to give it to. I took him to lunch again to encourage him to take the award. I was not successful. Yes, it demonstrates his modesty. And illustrates the frustration of those who know what he has done and wish to recognize his philanthropy.
The general public doesn’t know who he is, but large numbers of Australians in political, corporate, university and research circles certainly do: a very private man, a very modest man who wants to leave his mark and stay in the shadows.
His legacy in Australia can be quite easily expressed: hundreds of medical breakthroughs, large or small, that would not have happened were it not for him. As a result of these advances, thousands of lives have been lengthened or saved and many thousand more yet to come, and quality of life improved because of his generosity of heart. For those of us who know him, he’s a living example of what a generous and giving spirit can do for the world.
I love the guy dearly. He is a seriously rare bird, a guy who worked hard to be successful in business and has worked even harder to give it away.
He is a human being with a global conscience.
— KEVIN RUDD, Prime Minister of Australia, 2007–2010, 2013