The Anti-Trump

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….

26 thoughts on “The Anti-Trump

  1. Dear John – what a heartwarming, upbeat story, at a time when we need all of the positive feelings we can find! Thanks for sharing…


  2. Thank you for sharing a ray of hope…it’s a good reminder that there are some individuals who can think of someone besides themselves. If only there were more.


  3. An encouraging story that gives hope during these confusing times. Thank you for being one of my inspirations over the years Mr. Merrow.


  4. Wonderful story on Charles Feeley who is, indeed, one of those quiet heroes, who changes lives. It reminds me though of countless other marvelous human beings who go about doing great work, catalyzing possibilities, supporting worthwhile endeavors and never draw, or care to draw, attention to themselves. They are the real “creators” of progress and value. It’s so important to be reminded that there are dignified, truthful, and humble individuals who are busy doing good when other blowhards are busy spouting their own illusory importance. Thanks for warming my heart.


  5. Charles Feeley is an inspiration…and so are you John. You hung in there doing important work. What was it Obama said? Show up. Dive in. Persevere. You did it John, hats off to you, and happy new year.


  6. John,

    Thanks for your wonderful story about Chuck Feeney. Yours is one of thousands that could, and should, be written about hm. Here’s another (shortened to “comment” length). In the early 1990’s I was president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and facing the daunting task of raising millions of dollars every year to fund the initial R&D work needed to develop, implement, and gain support for, the 25 “certificates” of National Board Certification. Our mutual friend Angela Covert attended a national meeting we sponsored, and initiated a conversation with me about possible support. In the years that followed, the National Board received almost $8 million of desperately needed financial support from the “anonymous donor”. Today, there are more than 120,000 National Board Certified Teachers, and more than 20,000 more teachers are candidates this year for Board Certification. THANK YOU, Angela – but also, THANK YOU to Chuck.

    One more comment – it’s fabulous that these stories be told now, while Chuck Feeney is alive to hear about them. After all, he is THE founder of the “Giving While Living” movement, which led directly and indirectly to dozens of billionaires joining Feeney in committing vast sums to charitable causes. More recently, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates formalized this campaign by asking many wealthy people to commit to giving away more than half of their wealth; dozens have already made that pledge.

    Jim Kelly


      • I remember that entire experience as if it were yesterday. Sophie is a gift to us all. As you no doubt know, she’s very involved with FairTest, an important organization in the fight against over-testing, et cetera


    • Jim, thank you for relating this story, an even more important example of Mr. Feeney’s generosity. Did you ever meet the man? I’d love to be able to say thanks in person. Maybe he’d let us buy him a cup of coffee one day in SF??


  7. A great story about a wonderful window of opportunity. I was producing a series of documentary films about success stories in people-centered, sustainable rural development in the late 1980s, and Anonymous was our project’s life saver as well. Ironically, I seemed to follow the Anonymous path, as I went into graduate school studying university-community partnerships and civic engagement. There again was Anonymous as a major funder of our work in service-learning and social justice education. In fact, Anonymous helped us to film a meeting and develop a book in 1995, “Service-Learning: a Movement’s Pioneers Reflect…” Twenty years later, we are convening another meeting with the next generation of service-learning educators from higher ed. Hoping to film his one as well and produce another series of films about transformative community-university partnerships. Alas, we deeply miss Anonymous, as we look around for support for our current project. Is there an Anonymous 2.0?

    Seth Pollack


    • Seth and John, 2 things. First, I’d like to learn more about Seth’s plans to interview service learning pioneers. Is Jim Kielsmeir, formerly director of National Youth Learning Council on the list?

      Re major interventions – in 1983 a friend arranged for me to meet with Russ Ewald, head of the McKnight Foundation in Mpls. This was after I had written a book called “Free to Teach” challenging many public school systems (some of which I had worked in), and calling for opportunities for groups of teachers and parents to create new public schools open to all. Not too popular at the time.

      Ewald grilled me for an hour about what I hoped to do next. Very tough questions. At the end, he told me that I was not asking for enough money and that the foundation would provide enough for 2 years of work. His generosity had a huge positive impact on what I was able to do then (like help write some laws and help start some schools) as well as work directly with a number of state governors.

      So I appreciate the experiences that John and Seth had.

      I also salute Deborah McGriff, who is trying hard to make sure that funds are available to help talented people of color who are educators, carry out their dreams.


  8. Dear John,
    Although years have passed since we first met, you and your work remain at the top of my list of those who truly make a difference for our children. I am reminded of Mother Teresa’s famous remark that there are no great deeds, only small deeds with great love.

    I am also reminded of another wealthy investor advising others to “temper your greed and manage your fear”. [Was that Buffet?] This phrase has important implications for all of us far outside the world of wealth and material success.

    Few of us are in the billionaire class, but, as one who is well into his 5th decade in the classroom (here in Fairfax County), I can tell you many of these small deeds which do make a difference. In fact, I write about them still in my column in our Virginia Association of Science Teachers Newsletter.

    Ever since my initial certification in 1999 I have been working in development and scoring roles for the National Board. Of course both Jim’s are legendary, Jim Hunt and Jim Kelly, neither of whom have I had the pleasure of meeting. However, hearing Jim Kelly’s heartening comments made here to you about the Board’s unsteady footsteps in founding days, this, too, restores my confidence and hope that the most significant and the most rewarding enterprise we have is that of education.

    Since the ’60’s when I began, teens and tech have changed our professional (and personal) lives in great, and mainly positive, ways. However, the importance of the fundamental face-to-face relationship between caring adults and adolescents has not changed. Those caring and committed individuals like Charles Feeney need to know over and over the positive differences they make in the lives of our children. [And the lives of our teachers, too.] This is especially important as darkness seems to have descended over much of Washington these days.

    Thank you for being you, John, and for reaching out to so many of us in so many ways.

    George Dewey


    • George
      I am deeply touched by your comments…and only wish my Mom and Dad were alive to read them!!. Congratulations to you for your life of service to children. We all need to stick together in days and years ahead.


  9. Tom Crider said it, you hung in there. You invented something new that lasted. Start up journals rarely continue. Congrats !


  10. A lot of whatever you articulate is suirppsingly precise and that makes me wonder why I hadn’t looked at this with this light previously. Your article truly did turn the light on for me personally as far as this issue goes. Nonetheless at this time there is actually 1 point I am not really too comfortable with so while I try to reconcile that with the actual core theme of the position, let me observe just what all the rest of your visitors have to say.Very well done.


  11. Na klar doch,jetzt mischt hier auch noch der versoffene Pattaya Alex mit. Poolfreund vom fetten Ludwig,ich lach mich schlapp. Zwei Nullnummern im Ca,ubforommdas hat dieses Forum nun wirklich nicht verdient. Bin neugierig was da alles noch kommt coz zu Unrecht seid ihr Beide ja wirklich nicht aus fast allen Thaiforen verbannt worde.Gruss vom MauziHeisse Debatte. Was denkst du? 7  9


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