Power of philanthropy - The greatest gift of all — possibility

In New York’s Lincoln Centre last May over 1,300 Irish Americans and their friends attended a dinner which, in the middle of the most difficult economic circumstances in decades, raised $4.3m (€3.5m) for the American Ireland Fund (AIF).

That evening, AIF also announced that they had reached their $100m (€81m) fundraising goal 19 months ahead of schedule.

This phenomenal largesse was a resounding vote of confidence in the AIF and the great work they have undertaken over the past decisive decades on this small island but it was also a huge vote of confidence in the idea that possibility and Ireland still have a lot in common. The moral support, the solidarity and cross-generational loyalty to the ’ould sod may be even more valuable, more telling in the longer term than the millions of dollars at this very low point in our economic dependency.

If this New York gala was a great act of collective philanthropy then the life of Chuck Feeney has come to epitomise exceptional generosity and individual philanthropy. To date he has given, largely secretly, something around €5bn to charities around the world, some €1.5bn of it to various Irish causes.

In recent days the reclusive Irish-American billionaire, now aged 81, has announced that his charitable operations will close in a few years. Atlantic Philanthropies, founded by Mr Feeney three decades ago, is to complete grant-making by the end of 2016 and cease operations in 2020. Mr Feeney’s organisation has said that the focus of his funding would be to maximise the benefits possible with his remaining resources — €1.83bn, of which €750m is already committed to existing projects.

It is not coincidental that Mr Feeney and the AIF have put the greatest emphasis on funding third-level education, possibly realising more than some of those who benefit from it that education is the great empowering force in our world.

Atlantic Philanthropies has funded infrastructure — libraries and sports centres — at seven Irish universities and funded research at as many more. The reality is that Mr Feeney has broadened the horizons for every student who attended — or will attend — these colleges, a gift as generous as it is challenging.

Recognising the role philanthropy can play in society, the Government last Thursday launched the Forum on Philanthropy Report. The objective was to increase the level of philanthropic and charitable giving along with developing fundraising capacity and best practice across the sector. Though this is a generous society, those instincts are sometimes squandered through poor application or management and anything that can get the best use of such funding is to be welcomed.

Mr Feeney, and many of those at the Lincoln Centre dinner, have had exceptionally successful and lucrative careers and are in a position to be exceptionally generous. The great majority of us are not but that does not mean our contributions, no matter how moderate, cannot contribute to improving the lives of others — intent is more important than scale in this instance. Mr Feeney has given away billions doing just that and that, after all, is what philanthropy is about.

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