12/22/2012 03:49 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2013

Charitable Giving: A Great American Tradition


Before raising his glass the ambassador said, in the realm of culture and traditions, Europeans tend to think they have little to learn from Americans, but they are wrong. When it comes to private support for public causes, you are our role models. This toast was offered years ago at a dinner held in honor of an American professor, who had made a large donation in support of international student exchanges.

Though Americans remain the world's undisputed champions of consumption, the holiday season also highlights our commitment to giving back. The Emersonian ideal of self-reliance has its counterpoint in a sense of individual responsibility to support the institutions and organizations we believe in and to help those in need.

Our "pursuit of happiness" has always involved as much the right to spend our fortunes, large or small, however we choose as it has the freedom to acquire those assets in the first place. In contrast, Old World aristocrats were custodians of the property they inherited. Ancestral homes and lands were not theirs to sell, much less give away.

The American practice of returning personal wealth to the communities, the country and the world that generated them is a homegrown tradition. Ben Franklin left funds to Philadelphia and Boston. Merchant and banker, Stephen Girard, probably the richest man in America at his death in 1830, willed almost his entire estate to local charitable organizations and to the city of Philadelphia.

Another richest American of his day, Andrew Carnegie, was particularly keen on books and music. By 1920, almost half the libraries in the United States and thousand of organs had been paid for with his money. Carnegie believed that giving away a fortune effectively required at least as much effort as making it. He even argued for confiscatory inheritance taxes as a way of encouraging the rich to divest themselves of their money while they were still living.

No one has taken Carnegie's philosophy more seriously than Chuck Feeney. Born in northern New Jersey, he learned about self-reliance and the value of community growing up during the Depression. In his 50s, he retired from running the international business he had built and transferred his entire fortune to a foundation. All of it. He took a modest salary and traveled the world looking for worthy people and projects to fund. Since then the endowment has made grants totalling several billion dollars in areas such as education and health care.

Almost alone among large scale philanthropists Feeney has refused public recognition for his contributions. His name appears on the sides of no buildings and on no plaques under his portrait, not even at the university he attended and to which his foundation has given more generously than any other single donor to any institution of higher education, ever.

The foundation's officers did their work so quietly in the early years that occasionally they were forced to ask politicians and other public figures to personally reassure stunned recipients of funding that, yes, the source was legitimate and the checks were safe to deposit.

Feeney is determined that the foundation's coffers be empty before the end of this decade, no small chore with a few billion still remaining. But the point, as Feeney might say, is to get the money out there doing good, not to leave it sitting around.

A holiday toast, then, to another (reluctant) role model and to a great American tradition.