The Man Who Gave Away $4 Billion, and Other Amazing Philanthropists

If you had 4 billion dollars, would you give it all to charity? Learn about the man who did -- and the other ultra-generous philanthropists who are following in his footsteps.

Visit St. Bart’s, Monaco, East Hampton, or Nantucket, and prepare to be astounded and disgusted by the ostentatious displays of wealth gone wild: sprawling cliffside mansions, 500-foot yachts, beluga caviar for brunch, Chihuahuas dressed in Dolce & Gabbana dresses.

In today’s world, there’s a massive gap between the rich and the poor, and an even larger one between the rich and the ultra-rich. Want to hear a scary statistic? The entire economies of the 48 poorest countries add up to less money than you’ll find in the Swiss bank accounts of the three richest people in the world.

Luckily, not all of the ridiculously rich flaunt their wealth like Paris Hilton and her crowd of debauched heirs and actresses. In fact, some of the people who’ve made the most money have also done the most to help the people who don’t have any. Here are a few benevolent billionaires who’ve used their wealth to help the world, instead of simply buying another boat or six.

Chuck Feeney doesn’t have a house or a car, flies in coach, and carries his possessions in a plastic bag instead of a leather briefcase. He’s the last guy in the world you’d expect to be a billionaire, but in 1988, Forbes Magazine listed him as the world’s 24th richest person: With a net worth of $1.3 billion from co-founding the ubiquitous Duty-Free Shopping company, he was supposedly richer than media tycoons like Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump. Forbes was right on one count: He did earn all that money, and more. But the magazine didn’t do quite enough research: As it turned out, he’d given it all away.

In the last 25 years, Feeney, now 76, has donated more than $4 billion of his personal fortune to fund schools, hospitals, scientific research, and other charitable causes all over the world. He sees no reason to keep his mountain of riches for himself: “It has always been hard for me to rationalize a 32,000-square-foot house or someone driving me around in a six-door Cadillac,” he told BusinessWeek. “The seats are the same in a cab. And you may live longer if you walk.” To learn more about this remarkably generous tycoon, pick up a copy of the new biography, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune, by Conor O’Clery, available from Amazon.

Most of us know that television tycoon Ted Turner is one of the richest people in the world. He founded cable networks CNN and TBS, owns the Atlanta Braves, and privately holds more land than anyone else in America. But before you roll your eyes in disgust, consider this amazing fact: Over the last ten years, Turner has donated $1 billion to United Nations causes, funding programs to promote children’s health, environmental issues, human rights, and more. He’s also spent hundreds of millions on environmental protection efforts, and in 2001, he donated $250 million to create the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a think-tank dedicated to protecting the world from nuclear warfare.

And then there’s the world’s most powerful pair of philanthropists, investor Warren Buffett and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The duo made headlines all over the world last year when Buffett, the second-richest man on earth, pledged to give a jaw-dropping $31 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

His astonishing donation, which doubles the Foundation’s assets, will go far in helping the Gates Foundation accomplish their important missions: Improving health care and eradicating poverty around the world, stopping the spread of AIDS, and creating more opportunities in the educational and technological fields. Each year, the foundation gives $800 million to global health causes alone – nearly as much as the collective contributions of the UN World Health Organization’s 192 countries. Next year, Bill Gates plans to step down from his role at Microsoft to focus on working full-time for the Foundation, so it sounds like this computer geek with a conscience will be using his billions to save the world for years to come.

Of course, there are plenty of other ultra-generous philanthropists we’re leaving out, including Oprah Winfrey, George Lucas, and eBay founder Jeff Skoll, who’ve all given hundreds of millions to charitable causes. To see a list of today’s 50 most generous givers, click here.

Could it be that, for every obscenely rich and in-your-face billionaire like The Donald, there’s a selfless counterpart like Chuck Feeney? Well, not quite – but as long as we’ve got a few philanthropists out there following in Feeney’s footsteps, the world is in good hands.