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Anonymous donors are a rare and interesting breed, and we should celebrate the humility that gives birth to anonymity. And yet, we may not want all giving to be anonymous.

I derive a strange joy, whenever I receive an annual report from a charity, in counting up the number of donors who are listed as Anonymous.

It’s fun to imagine who those individuals might be, and to guess why they wished to hide their identities. For the most part, I assume it’s mere humility that inspires people to give money anonymously. Hence the joy I feel when I read about anonymous gifts. Genuine humility, given its very nature, is hard to come by; it’s worth celebrating.

But it would be naïve to assume that a pure and virtuous humility lies at the root of every anonymous gift. Some people give anonymously simply because they don’t want pesky fundraisers from other charities to hit them up for donations. Or because they don’t want to deal with grandkids whining about a dwindling inheritance. Or because their friends would be outraged to find out they gave to this this charity instead of to that charity. And so on.

Motivations for anonymity may vary, but on the whole, isn’t it a good thing? Wouldn’t nonprofits be better off if donors quit asking for, or quietly expecting, public recognition?

A great deal of attention has been paid in the past year to wealthy individuals who used big donations to paper over immoral activity. We have been outraged at the people who practiced such fig-leaf philanthropy, and we have been outraged at the institutions who benefited from their donations. Within the world of nonprofits, the scandals have provoked a lot of conversation about how to protect yourself and your charity from getting swept up in something similar.

More recently, nonprofits have been forced to reevaluate their relationships with donors whose unsavory pasts are under increased scrutiny. Removing a name from a building is a somber exercise, even when it’s the proper thing to do.

In the spirit of inquiry, here’s a thought experiment.

Imagine a world in which every donation is anonymous to the public. In this world, charities would know from whom they’re receiving donations, though such information would never be divulged in press releases, in annual donor lists, on plaques, on the sides of buildings, and so forth. There would be no public recognition of any kind. Even donors—be they individuals, corporations, or foundations—would remain silent about their own gifts. In this world, every gift would be an anonymous gift.

Now extend the thought experiment by supposing that, in this hypothetical world, your own charity received a gift from an individual who had acquired wealth through immoral means. Would it be wrong to accept a gift when the gift cannot be used as cover for misdeeds? Or suppose that you learned of unscrupulous behavior by one of your existing donors. Would it be your duty to return the money?

Of somewhat less consequence, how would your nonprofit convey gratitude in such a world, when press releases and big ribbon-cutting ceremonies for donors are off limits? Would it be more difficult to conduct a capital campaign if no one could know who the lead gift came from? Would overall giving decline or increase?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I think the experiment highlights the slippery nature of anonymity. We’re justifiably uncomfortable with the idea that wealthy donors can rewrite their own legacies simply by signing big checks. Yet in another context, we are leery of the effects that wealthy donors can have on our political system when they give anonymously (or try to give anonymously) to candidates and organizations.

It was once suggested that acts of generosity should always be carried out in secret. Such advice is predicated on the notion that all praise is ultimately hollow, a kind of fool’s gold, and therefore to be avoided. Your name on the side of a building? This, too, will fade.

At the same time, there is something to be said, particularly in a democracy, for setting a virtuous example. It’s good when upstanding individuals are publicly upstanding. And even if those upstanding individuals are wary of praise, praising them is nevertheless a way of signaling that we should all try to be more like them. Which is a long way of saying that it’s often good when people give away money and talk about it. It puts a healthy kind of pressure on other people to do the same.

Money talks, sometimes loudly. We’re always at risk of thinking more highly than we ought to of philanthropists, of too quickly excusing their faults. Shakespeare was right: “A giving hand, though foul, shall have fair praise.

Lucky for us, truly foul hands are rare. Most donations come from pretty average people whose motives are admirable, if not entirely “pure.” They want to extend aid, to practice charity, to love their neighbors. Good for them. A little public praise directed their way is hardly going to hurt.

Anonymous donors don’t practice a better kind of philanthropy. They offer a glimpse of philanthropy freed from the dynamics of transaction. It is not a philanthropy free from responsibility or repercussions, but it is free from at least some of the give and take, some of the posturing, some of the reputation building that motivates a certain kind of donor.

Which is why, on balance, I’m grateful for anonymous donors. May their number increase.

1 thought on “In praise of anonymity”

  1. Chip Watkins says:

    “Fig-leaf” charity is rarely successful in whitewashing the donor, it being an attempt at self-atonement. In our day, Michael Milken may be the exception who proves the rule.

    And boards of charities that would “return” past gifts, or that refuse proposed large gifts, based on the donor’s identity or past or present sins that are momentarily the “anti-fad” of the season face difficult fiduciary questions if the donor does not require them to change their mission, message, or programs. Donor support for a charity does not mean that the charity supports the donor or agrees that the donor is pure. If that were necessary, no donor is pure enough. Plunder Egypt!

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