$125 Million Is Pledged to Big Medical Center
March 13, 2009, The New York Times — Despite a worldwide economic decline, the nine-figure gift is not dead.
Charles F. Feeney, the iconoclastic philanthropist known as “the billionaire who wasn’t,” is giving $125 million to the University of California San Francisco Medical Center to support development of a complex to provide medical services to children, women and cancer patients on its new downtown campus.
The gift is the first of $100 million or more since last fall, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Gifts of $1 million or more fell by 33 percent in the last half of 2008, a notable exception being the $300 million donation that David G. Booth, founder and chief executive of Dimensional Fund Advisors, gave to the University of Chicago business school in November.
Mr. Feeney, who earned his fortune with a chain of duty-free shops, is known for his extraordinarily modest lifestyle and his many years of anonymously giving away hundreds of millions of dollars before he went public as a philanthropist in 1997.
The new donation is the largest ever by his foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, though in an interview Thursday at Atlantic’s offices in New York, he questioned whether it was appropriate to call the money a gift, since it is contingent on the university’s ability to raise a matching amount from other donors.
“If they don’t raise the money, they don’t get the gift, so I’m not sure you can really call it that,” he said.
Mr. Feeney also fretted about the timing of the fund-raising effort, noting that many prospective donors had seen their wealth cut by 40 percent or more.
“There is no such thing as a small gift, of course, but we’ll need major gifts to achieve this goal I’ve set,” he said.
Mark R. Laret, chief executive of the medical center, said he thought the gift from Atlantic would inspire other donors.
Atlantic, which has plans to spend all its remaining billions in assets by 2020, works around the world on issues of aging, improving health-care delivery for the poor, providing education and health care to children, and promoting human rights.
It is the largest supporter of the university’s $1.68 billion health sciences complex on the new campus, having previously given gifts totaling $145 million for a cancer-related program and a cardiac program.
The new gift is to help finance hospitals with a total of 289 beds. It would put more than 1,000 people to work in construction and create several hundred long-term jobs in health care.
Mr. Feeney is a leading proponent of giving away one’s wealth while living, and his daughter Diane has also emerged as an advocate for foundations that donate more of their assets than is required by law.
“Just think,” Mr. Feeney said Thursday, reflecting on the global economic downturn, “if wealthy people had given away more of the money they had over the last decade, they wouldn’t have lost it.”