Billionaire Charles Feeney has finally completed what he set out to do: He has given away his fortune. In all, he’s donated $8 billion, keeping only about $2 million for himself and his wife, Helga, who now live in San Francisco. Jim Dwyer of the New York Times wrote a glorious profile of Mr. Feeney early this month, and I urge everyone to read it. You will discover how he made his money and why he decided to give it away. Unlike Donald Trump, he did not insist upon having his name on buildings (and his money has helped build more than 1,000 of them!). He hasn’t wanted his name in lights, unlike a certain New Yorker. Moreover, Mr. Feeney gave away money that he himself had earned, in sharp contrast to Mr. Trump, who solicited donations from others and then donated the money in his own name.
Most of Mr. Feeney’s gifts have gone to to higher education (especially Cornell, his alma mater), public health, human rights, and scientific research).
For most of his time as a philanthropist, Mr. Feeney insisted on anonymity (unlike another New Yorker we know). Recipients either did not know where the money was coming from, or, if they did, they were sworn to secrecy.
I’m one of the beneficiaries. His gift saved my career.
It was 1994, and I was basically broke, with two films nearing completion but no money to finish them. I was employed by a small non-profit in South Carolina but working in New York City. That organization managed our grants, took care of payroll for the three of us, and filed final reports to foundations (although I wrote them). For these small tasks, the organization took 20% of every grant, off the top. I thought that was way too much, and I was able to persuade one foundation to write a 15% cap into its grant. I used that as leverage to get the rate down for other grants, but only after a protracted and nasty battle.
Winning that battle was a mistake, because I soon lost the war, one that I hadn’t even known he had declared. Early in 1994 the boss called me to announce (with glee) that he was shutting down my operation in New York City because we were out of money. I explained that I had two sizable grants in the pipeline and that all we needed was an advance to cover a few months. Sorry, he said, no advances.
I was panicked. I lay awake most nights, in a cold sweat. We had spent three years filming in a Cincinnatti high school, watching a small band of reformers put Ted Sizer’s “Less is More” Essential Schools philosophy into operation. We had wonderful characters and a great story of the resistance to change from within a school. But we didn’t have the dollars necessary to finish editing, mixing, color-correcting, et cetera. And we were well into filming another story.
In all, I calculated that we needed about $90,000 to finish both films and deliver them to PBS. That number didn’t include salaries, which all three of us had decided to forgo just to get the work done.
I spent days on the phone, calling in whatever chits I imagined I might have. Not many, as it turned out, but I did get promises of $10,000 from one foundation, $5,000 from another, and (perhaps) $7,500 from a third. Then I called Sophie Sa of the Panasonic Foundation. She said her foundation couldn’t make grants, unfortunately. I was crestfallen and was about to sign off when she said, “Do you know about the anonymous foundation?”
No, I said, tell me.
“I can’t. It’s a secret. No publicity.”
Gee thanks, I thought to myself.
“But if you will send me a letter explaining what you’re looking for, I will see they get it.”
The fax went out within the hour, and the next morning my phone rang.
“John, this is Angela. I work for an anonymous donor, and we’d like to meet with you. Can you come by this afternoon?”
When I got there, I discovered that Angela’s last name was Covert, perfect for a top-secret organization. She and her colleague, Joel Fleishmann, spoke highly of our work and said they’d like to help, under the condition of absolute secrecy. After I agreed, they asked me how much I needed.
I think we can finish both films for about $75,000, I said, hoping that I wasn’t aiming too high. “That’s a ridiculous amount,” Joel said, and I’m sure my face fell. Then he added, “You will need at least twice that amount.”
He went on to talk about unexpected expenses, our salaries, some money for publicity, and a financial cushion to give me time to raise more money to keep the organization afloat.
And then one of them added, “And you ought to think about setting up your own non-profit so you don’t find yourself in this situation again. That means hiring a lawyer, which means more money.”
In the end, the anonymous foundation wrote a check for $200,000 or maybe $225,000, to be paid to a new non-profit organization. That’s how Learning Matters came into being.
We finished the film, which earned high praise. Judy Woodruff, then at CNN, called it “Riveting reporting….that powerfully demonstrates at once how hard reform will be and how absolutely necessary it is, if we are to save this and future generations of American youngsters.”
When the cover of anonymity was stripped away some years later, we learned that man who saved us from going broke was Charles Feeney, a public-spirited New Jersey native who served as a radio operator in the Air Force, attended Cornell on the GI Bill, and in 1960 co-founded Duty Free, the shops that cater to international air travelers.
Thanks to Charles Feeney’s generosity and the hands-on work of Angela Covert and Joel Fleishmann, Learning Matters had a good run of 20 years. We earned two Peabody Awards, produced hundreds of reports for the PBS NewsHour and three programs for Frontline, and served as a training ground for dozens of skilled producers who continue to focus on education and children’s issues.
(We did one other thing when Mr. Feeney went public: From that point on as far as we were concerned, Angela Covert was now Angela Overt!)
May Charles Feeney, now 85, and his wife enjoy many years of health and joy. What a marvelous role model he has been, and is.
Thank you, sir….