Nowadays, giving to charity has become an almost social experience. With challenges and campaigns like “PuberMe,” the idea of giving has transformed into more of a public domain movement. As a result, the anonymity and personal nature of donating to a cause has lost most of its meaning. There are, however, many people who donate without the public spectacle. Men and women who have made the world a better place without the fanfare. Here are 10 people who made the world a better place, while their actions remained largely hidden from the spotlight…
10. Chuck Feeney
The decision to give away his fortune was easy for Chuck Feeney. When asked about his generous actions, he said, “a man can only wear one pair of pants at a time.” Which, while not technically true, is a lovely sentiment nonetheless. In the 1960s, Feeney made his fortune by setting up duty free shops at airports which soon turned into a booming business. That, coupled with many shrewd investments in technology start-ups, left him with a net worth north of $7 billion. At the age of 85, that number had dwindled down to only $2 million.
Transferring his massive wealth to Atlantic Philanthropies, a collection of several different charities that he had funded, Feeney began giving away his wealth to causes and issues he felt strongly about. In the 1990s, he promised financial support for paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland if they abandoned armed conflict and accepted electoral politics. Feeney also donated to create a public health system in Vietnam as well as to provide antiretroviral treatment for AIDS victims in South Africa. What makes Feeney’s work so commendable is that it was a business dispute that forced disclosure of his payments to Atlantic Philanthropies.
9. Richard Leroy Walters
There’s very little chance our readers know the name Richard Leroy Walters, and that’s okay. Few even knew him when he was alive. Rita Belle, one of the few who came to know Walters, learned that “he gave up all material things that we think we have to have.” Never married and estranged from his brother, Walters and Belle became friends.
She later discovered that Walters was homeless and sleeping on the grounds of the senior center. Walters would reveal to Belle that he ate at the hospital and used a telephone there or at the center. Despite being homeless, Walters was not poor. He was in fact a millionaire who would, in his will, donate millions to charities including National Public Radio and the Catholic Church Mission. With his final act, Walters honored his friend. It was clear to Belle that he was an atheist, and she, as you probably guessed, was a Catholic.
8. Ronald Read
Like Richard Walters, Read did not show off his wealth or even give any indication that he was rich at all. The Vermont man was known for wearing a particularly tattered hat around town. A woman knitted him a replacement, fearing that it would not hold up in winter. On another occasion, his meal was paid for by another customer because it was feared he’d be unable to pay.
The truth would only be revealed after his death, when Read left Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and the Brooks Library $4.8 million and $1.2 million, respectively. The donations might seem random, but it was soon revealed that Read would visit the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital frequently for coffee and breakfast. It’s safe to say he paid them back for it.
The iconic artist of hits like “Purple Rain,” “Kiss,” and “When Doves Cry” changed the world in more ways than one. Prince’s death revealed another side of him that he was careful not to publicize: his philanthropy. Van Jones, an environmentalist, was working on George W. Bush’s clean jobs act when he received an anonymous donation check for $50,000. He remembers returning it, but then weeks later getting the same check again. Unwilling to accept a check, at that price, without knowing the sender, he returned it again, only to get a call from a Prince representative.
Jones asked who the sender was, and the representative refused to say, but revealed his favorite color is purple. That’s just one example of Prince’s generosity and the manner in which he displayed it. There are countless others, like his unprompted donation to a senior center in Minnesota, his donations to the victims of the bridge collapse in his home state, and to his support for public schools purchasing musical equipment and a studio to help foster the next great musician. Prince will be missed not only for music, but for his big heart.
6. George Michael
Another musician who doubled as a philanthropist was British singer, songwriter, and record producer George Michael. Although his public life was a matter of national headlines in the UK, he kept his philanthropy under wraps and out of the newspapers. It wasn’t until his death that people came to realize how generous of a man he really was. An employee at a homeless shelter revealed that Michael worked their repeatedly but told employees not to tell anyone of his presence.
His charity also was random and spontaneous. A woman on Deal or No Deal said she needed thousands for IVK treatment. The next day she received a phone call from Michael, who offered to pay for treatment. When a waitress told him of her debt incurred trying to become a nurse, Michael tipped her £5,000. Again, she was sworn to secrecy, only revealing her mystery benefactor after his death. Probably his most generous act was his decision to give royalties from his 1996 number one single Jesus to a Child to the charity to Childline, a free counseling service for young people. Childline’s founder estimates the donation gave millions and saved thousands of lives.
5. Jack MacDonald
Jack MacDonald lived in a small, one bedroom apartment. His clothing had holes in them. In short, he didn’t live the life of a multi-millionaire. MacDonald cared about much much more important things: people. Inheriting his parent’s meat packing business, MacDonald turned his inheritance into more than 180 million dollars through prudent investments.
Throughout his life, he made anonymous donations to hundreds of organization. That continued even in death. A widower without children, MacDonald left his entire fortune to the Seattle Children’s Hospital, the University of Washington Law school, and the Salvation Army.
4. Roberto Clemente
Although Roberto Clemente is well known for what he did on the baseball field, his impact extends far beyond the diamond. Clemente was one of the first Latin American ball players to become a baseball star, and the native of Puerto Rico believed that he had to be a shining example to his country and people. Clemente would host baseball clinics for underprivileged children free of charge, and most notably helped deliver food to communities in need.
Unfortunately, like many of our other cases, his death is a big part of how we’d come to see Clemente’s tremendous character. After a massive earthquake caused devastation in Nicaragua, Clemente organized shipments of aid, but soon realized that corrupt officials were keeping them from reaching the victims. Under the belief that his presence would make a difference, he boarded the next plane to Nicaragua only for it to crash, killing everyone aboard. Clemente lives on in his work, with a community service award named after him in the MLB.
3. Eldon Foote
Sometimes you think you know someone, and they surprise you. There’s no better case of this than the life of Eldon Foote. The lawyer used his background to avoid paying taxes, he abandoned his family for a new romance, and even switched careers to become a marketing executive. Everything about Eldon Foote screamed that he was self-centered and egotistical.
Foote didn’t exactly have an easy life, growing up during the Depression and enlisting in the army during World War II. He returned home and got married, eventually raising five children. However, he became unhappy and not only divorced his wife, but switched careers entirely. He’d grow unhappy again, and after a contentious divorce from his second wife, Foote sold the business and married for the last time. His philanthropy began on a whim. As his hometown prepared to host a massive, international athletics event in 2001, the sports field at the University of Alberta was in dire need of refurbishment. Needing a donation of $2 million, the athletics department approached Foote, a former track athlete. Foote obliged, sending them the full amount. Soon after Foote was diagnosed with cancer, and died only a month later.
His will would reveal that he was leaving the vast majority of his net worth to charitable organizations. Foote would leave 160 million to the Edmonton Community Foundation, the largest donation the organization ever received. Foote’s family was not at all pleased by his decision. They sued, and eventually lost. The impact of Foote’s donation is still being felt in the low income neighborhoods of Edmonton.
2. George Steinbrenner
Brash and bombastic, who knew that Steinbrenner was quietly a philanthropic person? In 1992, when a hurricane laid waste to South Florida, Steinbrenner appeared at the Salvation Army central distribution center in Tampa and simply said, “Put me to work.” Steinbrenner didn’t just sit in the lobby and show his face; he helped load 500 gallons of water into the back of a 20-foot truck. Afterward, he drove six and a half hours to Homestead, and delivered the water to the victims of the hurricane. He did this all without fanfare. No cameras, no press, just Steinbrenner.
Although Steinbrenner was viewed as rash and quick to lose his temper; he was just as quick to help someone in need. He paid the funeral expenses for a family mourning their murdered son, he paid for damaged instruments of a local school band whose band room was vandalized, and when he witnessed a deaf child struggling to get an autograph he purchased the child hearing aids.
1. Julius Rosenwald
It’s a mystery as to why Julius Rosenwald has not become a household name. He didn’t even finish high school, yet he managed to become the chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Company and a life-changing philanthropist. In the early 1900s, Rosenwald gave away $62 million, which would be valued at a billion dollars today. And while the amount donated is important, what makes Rosenwald so special is who he gave the money to.
Nearly all of Rosenwald’s donations went to helping African Americans get a better education by building schools and community centers. As a Jewish man who had been the victim of discrimination, Rosenwald identified with African Americans. He did not help from afar, but was an active voice in these communities. He rallied African American communities to match the funds he had committed to build a school or community center. Their work wasn’t easy, as several schools were burned down, but that didn’t deter Rosenwald or the community. The schools were just built up again.
Rosenwald changed the lives of thousands of black children, and the example he set for his own children would save more lives still. Years later, his children and cousins saved the lives of 300 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. A Rosenwald yet again making the world just a little bit better.