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How many ways can donor intent be violated? Quite a few, as it turns out.

Of course, most violations of donor intent occur when a grant recipient has spent money other than as the donor intended.

Other donor intent violations involve naming rights, such as Garth Brooks’ successful claim against an Oklahoma hospital for disregarding his wish to name a treatment center for his mother and the controversy about the propriety of the Florida Atlantic University stadium being named for a private prison corporation.

And yet other donor intent violations occur when there is a breach of a donor’s wish for anonymity.

Such occurred last week in my hometown of Calgary, Canada, when the Calgary Foundation announced that the late Calgary oilman Daryl Seaman had donated $117 million—the largest charitable gift ever made in Canada.

Daryl Seaman had made this gift anonymously. Calgary Foundation CEO Eva Friesen conceded this but revealed the Calgary Foundation’s self-interested reasons for violating Seaman’s wish that this gift be anonymous:

Doc deserved some honouring and if honouring his gift and making it public inspires others to do the same it would benefit Calgary.

A fig leaf is put over this violation of Daryl Seaman’s intent by the imprimatur of his brother Don Seaman, who said his late brother “wouldn’t be too happy” but would understand that such an announcement could spur other philanthropists to make gifts.

We don’t know why Daryl Seaman wanted this gift to be anonymous. He did not fit what might be a typical figure of someone who lives a quiet life and wishes to avoid attention for his philanthropy: on the contrary, Daryl Seaman was a very well-known figure in Calgary, especially after he became one of the original owners of the Calgary Flames and played a leading role in bringing the 1988 Olympics to Calgary, a member of both the Alberta Order of Excellence and the Order of Canada, and indeed well-known for his philanthropic gifts to community and hockey organizations.

But, for whatever reason, Daryl Seaman wanted this particular gift to the Calgary Foundation to be anonymous. The Calgary Foundation should have respected that wish.

Nonprofits seek to publicize the names of donors because it can prompt additional giving and add the prestige of the donor’s name to a project. Indeed, nonprofits will think of every contrivance to get to at least semi-public status of donors. For example:

At Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., officials have persuaded big donors to reveal themselves to small groups of their peers. During meetings, the “anonymous donors” share their reasons for supporting the university and ask for their friends’ support.

Such a compromise allows donors to shield themselves from other organizations seeking donations while giving the school the opportunity to generate more money, said Michael D. Schoenfeld, Middlebury's vice president for college advancement.

After one recent meeting, he said, a donor who was considering giving $10 million doubled his gift, Schoenfeld said. Others also opened their wallets.

No wonder nonprofits wish to discourage anonymity when the power of imitation and example is so powerful among large donors.

But respecting donor intent requires respect for the wishes of donors who prefer anonymity.

This means nonprofits must establish procedures to guarantee anonymity (as, for example, by ensuring schedule B, where donors are listed, is not included in a nonprofit’s public inspection copy: see page 74 of this IRS guide). And, it certainly means not deliberately “outing” a donor who preferred anonymity.

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