From the Editors / History of Anonymous Giving

Introducing HistPhil’s Forum on the History of Anonymous Giving

Editors’ Note: This post, by HistPhil co-editor Benjamin Soskis, introduces HistPhil‘s forum on the history of anonymous giving, which will be featured on the site over the next few weeks.

To get a sense of the ambiguous place that anonymous giving now occupies within contemporary attitudes towards philanthropy, take a look at a striking passage in a recent Washington Post profile of Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple computer founder Steve Jobs and the head of the philanthropic LLC, the Emerson Collective. One reason why Powell Jobs is now one of the richest women on the planet is that her husband, while alive, depleted so little of his fortune through major philanthropic gifts. Or at least few major public gifts; Jobs’ defenders often claimed that much of his giving was done in secret. Yet even as she commits much of her husband’s Apple fortune to philanthropy, Powell Jobs apparently shares this valuation of discreet out-of-the-limelight do-goodism. The Post piece mentions a short essay “on the sublimity of anonymous giving” that she hands out to Emerson Collective employees. The profile’s author was allowed to glimpse the letter—and to cite it in the article, much of which was paradoxically devoted to an account of Powell Jobs’ philanthropy—but not to quote it.

You could say that there’s something comic about the veneration of anonymous giving within a generally-glowing 7000-word profile (and I do mean glowing; check out the angelic photo spread). But you could also read the reference as subversive at a time when anonymous mega-giving seems to have declining cultural cachet. Donors now announce major pledges on Facebook; solicit ideas for philanthropic spending on Twitter; write profiles for the Giving Pledge as carefully crafted as any campaign bio; and subject themselves to the scrutiny of an increasingly demanding, and critical, public. In this context, you can imagine Emerson staff passing around the tract like Soviet samizdat.

And yet, from another perspective, anonymous giving, far from being imperiled, is actually experiencing something of a renaissance. These are certainly not dark days for dark money—that is, private funds channeled to politically-oriented tax-exempt nonprofits (or to super PACs) without disclosure of the donor’s identity. The amount of dark money flowing through the system has exploded in recent years, from under $12 million in 2008 to just under $60 million in 2016; and those totals will be even higher in 2018. Recent legal and administrative decisions have created an even more welcome climate for anonymity and donor privacy to flourish. Just this week, Treasury announced that it was ending the requirement for most 501(c) nonprofits that they submit the names of donors to the IRS on the Form 990 Schedule B (for donations of more than $5000). And along with this surge in dark money, the rise of institutional alternatives to philanthropic foundations, such as LLCs and donor-advised-funds, that have much weaker (or no) donor disclosure requirements, have also bolstered the place of anonymity within the philanthropic scene.

Each of these developments has its own history, though they often intertwine. Given the uncertain status and legitimacy of anonymous giving in American society, HistPhil thought it would be an especially appropriate moment to explore those histories and to examine not just how the practice of anonymous giving has developed over time, but how its justifications and its critiques have evolved, and how legal and political institutions have shaped this development.

Broadly speaking, the justifications for anonymous giving have proceeded along three tracks, which sometimes converge and sometimes run parallel. The first (and for a long time, the dominant one) involves the virtue of humility and a related, though distinct, solicitousness for the dignity of the beneficiary. It can be grounded in religious imperatives—in the powerful injunction of Matthew 6:3 (“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”)—or in secular, dispositional rationales (a desire to avoid the awkwardness of gratitude, a preference for going unrecognized, a distaste for the limelight). Then there are what might be called the liberal rationales, grounded in concerns with the rights of donors (to privacy or to free expression), which are in turn related to fears of government reprisal or interference from public officials. In this case, justifications for the importance of anonymous speech are extended to the charitable realm as well. Finally, there are (related) prudential considerations, based in the desire to avoid solicitation from potential beneficiaries or harassment that might come as a result of publicizing a gift. Of course, a version of this justification of anonymous giving that is rarely publicly championed entails the desire to avoid scrutiny, shaming and accountability for gifts that would result in (perhaps just) reputational damage if they were known (think donations to climate change denial for individuals or institutions associated with the oil industry). But there are also occasions in which donors seek to hide their identities even when sure their cause is noble; see, for instance, the recent anonymous giving to support removal of Confederate statues.

Historically, there have been fewer explicit defenses of public giving; it’s only in the last century that they have rivaled the justifications for private, secret giving in prominence. (This is perhaps the case because injunctions to give anonymously were long honed againstthe perceived dangers of public giving, such as exorbitant self-regard, yet the dangers of secret giving have become salient only with the development of private fortunes within democracies). One strand of the critique of anonymous giving is republican in nature, concerned with public virtues and private vices, with the threat of special interests dominating the commonweal, and regards public scrutiny and transparency as a necessary safeguard. This view sees philanthropy less as a form of expression than of power, and as such, it requires close scrutiny.

A more positive variant of this line of argument extends from the increased invocations of the stewardship of wealth made by the richest American citizens to justify the massive personal fortunes that began to mushroom in the decades after the Civil War, coupled with the rise of a journalistic focus on celebrities, including the wealthy. How can the public determine if the responsibilities of wealth are being met if giving is done in secret? The assumption made by John D. Rockefeller’s philanthropic advisers, for instance, was that at a certain scale, philanthropy was an essentially public act that must subject itself to scrutiny (note that this argument largely preceded the tax privileges that would soon attend to much large-scale giving and which themselves have been invoked to demand transparency), even though Rockefeller himself much preferred the tradition of discreet, anonymous giving.

There is another version of the argument against anonymous giving that regards publicity less as a negative safeguard and more as a positive form of promotion. From Julius Rosenwald to the founders of the contemporary Giving Pledge, donors have appreciated the educative, inspirational and multiplicative potential of the public gift. This view was one of the reasons why Steve Jobs was attacked as philanthropically derelict—even if he had given secretly.

I’ve only lightly sketched out these various rationales and critiques; the upcoming HistPhilforum on the history of anonymous giving will delve into them in more detail. The focus will be largely on the American scene, but we are extremely interested in learning more about how similar debates have developed in other national contexts (and if you’d like to write about this, please do contact us ASAP). Even more generally, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue. Feel free to drop us a line or leave a comment—whether you chose to reveal your own identity or not.

-Benjamin Soskis

Benjamin Soskis is the co-editor of HistPhil and a research associate at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute.

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