History of Anonymous Giving

The Historical Case for Charitable Donor Privacy

Editors’ Note: Sean Parnell continues Histphil‘s forum on anonymous giving, making the affirmative, historical case.

Modern discussions of anonymous philanthropic giving tend to focus on supposed malefactors such as the libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, progressive George Soros, or the general threat that so-called “dark money” poses to our free society.[1] Often lost in these conversations is the simple recognition that charitable giving has long been done out of the public’s sight, and that there are very important reasons to respect and preserve this tradition.

The norm of anonymous philanthropic giving dates back at least two millennia. The Roman senator and philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, more commonly known as Seneca the Younger, wrote in his treatise on gifts and favors “How sweet, how precious is a gift, when he who gives does not permit himself to be thanked,” and noted “…[A]ll writers on ethical philosophy tell us that some benefits ought to be given in secret… when they do not promote a man or add to his social standing, but help him when in weakness, in want, or in disgrace, they should be given silently, and so as to be known only to those who profit by them.”

Religious injunctions to give anonymously extend back just as far. At roughly the same time as Seneca wrote on the subject, the book of Matthew in the Bible quotes Jesus telling his followers to “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men” and “Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you… But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,that your charitable deed may be in secret.”

And while Seneca perhaps overstates matters when he claims “[A]ll writers on ethical philosophy” favor anonymous charity, it is true that the value has been widely held across many cultures – the 12th-Century rabbi and scholar Moses Ben Maimon (better known as Maimonides) ranked anonymous giving quite highly, Muslims are instructed in the Quran “If you disclose your Sadaqaat (almsgiving), it is well; but if you conceal them and give them to the poor, that is better for you,” and in Hinduism anonymous giving is called gupt dān, which is considered to be “One of the most holy forms of dān.[2]

Some might question whether religious teachings stretching back to the Middle Ages and the era of the Roman Empire still carry weight today. How much relevance do Seneca’s words have in this day and age, for example, linked as they are to a Roman patronage system that was already fading by the time of their writing?

Quite a lot, it turns out. Given that nearly a third of all charitable giving (at least of the tax-deductible sort) is linked to houses of worship and other religious institutions, religious reasons for maintaining donor anonymity are highly relevant; one of the underlying premises of most faiths is that their teachings are timeless and eternal, applicable as much today as they were when first revealed. Recognizing this, it’s hard to simply wave away donor anonymity as a relic of a bygone era.

A recent example demonstrates this, echoing both religious impulses and the words of Seneca in support of contemporary anonymous charitable giving. Writing in Philanthropy magazine, my colleague Karl Zinsmeister shared a letter he received from a philanthropist:

I have given hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last three decades to people in need. I deal with people one-on-one in a clinical situation. When I identify situations that can be solved with my intervention, I steer the person to the proper medical facility and make arrangements directly with the health professional. When the patient arrives, they find the treatment has been fully funded by an anonymous source. I chose my profession to be in a position to do this kind of work and fund this activity. I endeavor to follow the wisdom of a man who spoke on a mountainside two millennia ago. His advice has worked well for over 30 years, and I have been found out only once. These funds go directly to medical providers and are not deducted from my taxes as contributions, much to the chagrin of my accountant. The only people who know about this are my wife, my accountant, and God. Currently, none of them are talking.

Aversion to the public spotlight and modesty have also played a role in the desire of many to keep their giving anonymous. Judah Touro, a wealthy New Orleans merchant in the first half of the nineteenth century, preferred anonymity in his giving, and nearly withdrew a $10,000 gift to complete a monument to the battle of Bunker Hill when he was revealed as the donor.[3] And there are no shortage of modern Judah Touros – notable anonymous gifts in 2018 so far include $9 million to build Planned Parenthood clinics in Texas, $7 million for the Artists Repertory Theater in Oregon, and Calvin College in Michigan was able to raise $25 million to retire debt from a group of anonymous donors.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to understand why a donor in Texas might want to remain anonymous when giving to an organization like Planned Parenthood, which if revealed could result in a backlash. The desire to avoid retribution for giving to unpopular causes is an obvious motivator for some philanthropists to keep their giving private, as demonstrated by President Andrew Jackson’s order to Postmaster General Amos Kendall in 1835 to make public the names of subscribers to anti-slavery mailings so that “every moral and good citizen will unite to put them in coventry, and avoid their society” (in those days, “subscribers” was often analogous to “donors”).[4] In more recent history, anonymous giving was a substantial portion of the funding supporting the cause of gay rights.

The understandable desire to avoid being inundated with further requests leads many philanthropists to prefer anonymity. This was a lesson learned the hard way George Eastman, founder of Eastman-Kodak, according to The New York Times nearly a century ago. He had given $10 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1912 but insisted that his name be kept private, in part to avoid more requests for funding. Eastman was revealed years later as the donor, and theTimes wrote that as a result he “had abundant occasion to regret that his identity is no longer a secret… he has become quite aware of the perils beset the paths of those pursued by the advocates of endless ‘worthy causes.’”[5]

And it is not merely the wealthy who have concealed their giving over the ages. For example, a report on anonymous philanthropy in Victorian England examined the records of the London Diocesan Home Mission and revealed several middle-class individuals who, known to the organization, requested that the annual report that normally listed donors refer to them only by their initials:

Miss Jessie Eleanor Richards, daughter of Reverend Prebendary Henry William Parry Richards (1827–1900) was entered in the annual report as ‘JR’. She subscribed [gave] £5 annually between 1904 and 1914, giving £65 in total. Stephen Smith Duval (1842–1926), a colonial broker, was entered in annual reports as ‘SD’. He gave two guineas in both 1913 and 1914. Miss Mary Sworder (1835–1915) the daughter of a maltster, gave £77 to the society between 1893 and 1913.[6]

Similar to what The New York Timesobserved regarding Eastman, a July 1880 article in The Times (of London) on charitable giving noted that “a name has once been printed on a subscription list, its owner becomes a marked man … From that day forward his persecutors will never cease.”

Debate over the need for and appropriateness of anonymous philanthropy extends back into the distant past as well, of course – the English abbot Aelfric of Eynsham in his widely-distributed homilies rejected nearly a thousand years ago“the biblical injunction to give one’s alms in secret, instead allowing that men could give alms publically [sic], so long as they did so for the glory of God rather than to boost their own reputations,”[7] and Martin Luther voiced similar sentiments in his day.[8]

Anonymous charitable giving has deep roots, and many philanthropists today cite reasons for preserving the privacy of their giving that would have been familiar to those giving centuries or even millennia ago. Against this history (to the extent critics of donor privacy are even aware there is a history) is mostly curiosity, and in some cases a desire to ostracize and punish those who give to the “wrong” charitable organizations, to put them in “coventry” as Andrew Jackson might have put it. We should all recoil at the thought of the state forcing disclosure of charitable giving that would, as The Times wrote nearly 140 years ago, make a philanthropist “a marked man” (or woman) facing persecution of any sort.

-Sean Parnell

Sean Parnell is vice president for public policy at The Philanthropy Roundtable. He is responsible for directing legislative, coalition, and communications efforts on policy issues related to charitable giving and philanthropic freedom at the federal and state levels, working with the Alliance for Charitable Reform. He is the author of the white paper Protecting Donor Privacy: Philanthropic Freedom, Anonymity, and the First Amendment.


[1]Originally used to describe undisclosed money related to election campaigns, the term “dark money” is now commonly used to describe gifts to charitable organizations as well, such as the charitable arm of the Super Bowl 50 host committee in San Francisco. See Joe Garafoli, “Super Bowl committee raising millions, with little transparency,” January 2, 2016, San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, the July 2, 2018 amicus curiae brief of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the case Citizens Union of the City of New York v. The Attorney General of the State of New York references the term “dark money” fifteen times in a fifteen-page submission aimed at enforcing disclosure requirements on 501(c)3 and (c)4 organizations. For more discussion of the term “dark money” being applied to charitable organizations, see: Sean Parnell, “Protecting Donor Privacy,” The Philanthropy Roundtable (June 2017), p. 16.

[2]Michael Barnett, Janice Gross Stein, Sacred Aid: Faith & Humanitarianism (Oxford University Press, 2012), 144.

[3]Karl Zinsmeister, The Almanac of American Philanthropy (The Philanthropy Roundtable, 2016), 239.

[4]Jennifer Rose Mercieca, “The Culture of Honor: How Slaveholders Responded to the Abolitionist Mail Crisis of 1835,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 10, No. 1 (Spring 2007), 66.

[5]William Chenery, “Philanthropy Under a Bushel: George Eastman, Kodak Manufacturer and Music Lover, Long Kept Big Gifts Secret,” New York Times, March 21, 1920.

[6]Sarah Flew, “Unveiling the anonymous philanthropist: charity in the nineteenth century,” Journal of Victorian Culture, 20  no. 1, (2015).

[7]Aleisha Olson, “Textual Representations of Almsgiving in Late Anglo-Saxon England” (PhD Diss., University of York, 2010).

[8]Martin Luther, Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, translation by Charles A. Hay (The Lutheran Publication Society, 1892), 228-240.


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