Jason Franklin
One of philanthropy's most intriguing and impactful new leaders

Anonymity & Giving: Part 1 Why People Stay Private

September 9th, 2012

A topic that comes up regularly in conversations through Bolder Giving is the issue of anonymity. It came up again just two weeks ago when I was talking with my mom – she noted that while my grandparents were very generous, my grandmother Mimi was also very private in her giving. Rooted in Jewish teachings about the spiritual value of charity being tied to anonymity, most of her giving was unknown even among her friends and family. ““So,” my mother asked me, “would you have asked Mimi to forsake what she was taught? Should she have been talking about her giving? Is staying private so bad?"

The only honest answer I can give is a qualified one – “it depends on why someone is public/private.” If you are staying private out of a desire to life up to the teachings of your faith, I can certainly understand, appreciate, and respect that decision. But I often wonder how much the spiritual value is explicit anonymity or the underlying humility that anonymity requires – that you give to do good rather than gain thanks or recognition. Interestingly, some interpretations of biblical and other texts believe the original authors were discussing humility rather than anonymity when offering guidance about discussing philanthropy. 

With no offense intended to any who chose anonymity for reasons of faith, if approached with a spirit of humility I believe that talking publicly about your giving can actually become an act of service in and of itself. Through sharing your story, talking about why you give or the charities that you believe in, you can inspire others to give and help attract needed resources to the causes you care about. The personal recommendation of a friend or peer is probably the most powerful marketing any nonprofit can ask for, and you can generate impact far beyond your donation by “spreading the good word.”

Other dynamics that lead some people to privacy include a fear of judgment, a desire not to have your giving/finances influence your relationships, and an aversion to being solicited. I would first say that all three of these concerns are fair and real, at least to some extent. And yet, I think all three are generally not as big as some donors fear, nor does privacy alleviate these concerns to the extent they hope. 

Fears of judgment – from peers or broader society – lead some donors to silence. The specific fears are varied – from an uncertainty about how others will view individual gifts to broader fears of being seen/judged as wealthy or not generous “enough.” And yet in talking with other givers who have become more public, two things I regularly hear is that “people didn’t care as much as I thought they would” or that “I realized people had already made judgments, just without knowing the real info.” If someone isn’t prone to judge, then your privacy won’t matter and if they are, they will do so with or without complete information. Wouldn’t you rather they understand your giving before judging? 

This fear is also closely connected to the hope that privacy will “protect” your relationships. It could be that you are a bold giver and afraid that people will read your giving of a high percentage of income or assets as an implicit condemnation of their lifestyle. Or perhaps the scale of your giving would clue people into your wealth or class background when you’ve kept that quiet. Or it could be any number of other related dynamics. These concerns are valid – sharing more about your giving will bring your values, your passions, your financial resources, and your background into clearer focus in your relationships. But in a parallel to “coming out” as part of the LGBTQ community, many donors who have “come out as givers” have found that their secrets were less secret than they thought. Their friends and family already understood the deeper issues which they feard that talking about their giving would shed light on. Instead, publicness can offer the chance to bring something you are proud of and passionate about into your relationships. Donors regularly share stories with me about discovering unknown shared interests or experiences even with close friends or family after talking about their giving. And the chance to build more fully honest relationships with others, without holding back part of their life, is a benefit they never expected.   

A third related fear I hear is that “if I talk about my giving, more people will ask me for money.” I can attest from personal experience that this fear is also well founded. As I have come to talk more publicly about my own giving, I receive more and more requests for support. But just as this fear is real, it’s also not as big as most people think. Just as I have come to be asked more, I have also been forced (had the opportunity to?) to learn how to "say no" better.  It’s been a powerful experience to realize that I’m not offending people when I say no, if I say it well. I’ve learned to explain how I decide where to give and become a better giver and a better communicator in the process. And I’ve also uncovered several new projects that I love and now do support because people involved with those causes heard about my giving and thought, correctly, that their project would be something I’d be passionate about.

So what do you think? Did I hit on the big issues? Do you agree? Are there other issues you think should have been listed? I'd love to hear your thoughts! Either comment here or email me at [hidden email].

Also, in this post I focused mostly on why people stay anonymous. Check back next week to read Part 2 – some the good and bad reasons people chose to be public!


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