History of Anonymous Giving

Revisiting “Disciples or Demigods”: The Case For and Against Anonymous Giving Now and a Quarter Century Ago

Editors’ Note: Paul Schervish wraps up HistPhil‘s forum on anonymous giving, with a reflection on groundbreaking research on the topic he conducted a quarter century ago.

In 1994 I published “The Sound of One Hand Clapping: The Case for and against Anonymous Giving.”[1] The basis for the article was a series of interviews I had done in 1985-1988 as part of Boston College’s Social Welfare Research Institute’s Study on Wealth and Philanthropy. 35 out of the 135 interviews we conducted explicitly discussed anonymous giving, and the conceptual and empirical findings we derived from them nicely complement the content of the essays published in the HistPhil forum on anonymous giving. In fact, the 1994 article remains relevant today—and not merely because, to my perhaps limited knowledge, it still provides the only published refereed article that reports in a systematic way on attitudes toward anonymous giving from donors themselves. More importantly, what it found about the pros and cons of anonymous giving is still applicable with regard to today’s ultra philanthropy, with its new forms and dramatically larger amounts of giving by so many more extraordinarily wealthy people.

The HistPhil forum has provided a series of well-researched, insightful, and balanced views about anonymous giving throughout history and up to the present day. Although each of these contributions analyzes sources or circumstances that favor anonymous giving, they also review those that call it into question.  In the end, the collective wisdom about anonymous giving seems to be that “it depends”—on various combinations of moral grounds and practical consequences.  This is my position as well, as I reconsider the case for and against anonymous giving and explore the ways in which it can be either caring or manipulative.

My published essay ends by clarifying several conceptual issues surrounding anonymous giving, but here it helps to begin with them:

  1. Anonymity in giving is a matter of degree. In today’s formal mode of charitable organizations few gifts are completely anonymous.  Almost all contemporary anonymous gifts are made to an organization with the donor’s identity almost invariable known to the president or CEO, with many in the upper echelons of development and administration knowing as well.  What makes a gift anonymous is that there is a limit on knowledge among the public, including beneficiaries.
  2. Most people’s gifts turn out to be functionally anonymous. The majority of donors who give less than a few thousand dollars are anonymous to the public and often within much of the organization itself. Donations to Bread for the World, Salvation Army, and religious congregations are known to development directors and in congregations only to the treasurer and seldom even to the pastor.
  3. Just as it is rare to find purely anonymous giving, it is equally rare to find givers who only give anonymously. As my findings indicate, anonymous and non-anonymous giving tend to be complementary, with donors being anonymous in some circumstances and not in others.
  4. Conscientious decisions when to be or not to be anonymous make donors more reflective about their philanthropic engagement, both as an identity and a mode of participation.  Just making a choice about anonymity can lead donors to examine carefully the purposes, amounts, motivations and the mechanisms of their philanthropy.  And the majority whose gifts are essentially anonymous should be encouraged to recognize and appreciate their participation in that ancient tradition.

The Case For Anonymous Giving

Study respondents enunciated both instrumental and ethical arguments for anonymous giving—often mixing and matching aspects of both arguments when discussing the topic.  The instrumental case demonstrates how anonymous giving helps the giver achieve certain desired ends. Anonymous giving allows donors to hide the fact of their wealth from friends of family, freeing donors from the pressure to attend charitable galas, receptions, and other events, and allowing them to work in an organization alongside others on a more equal footing. Anonymity shields givers from an onslaught of solicitations from other charitable organizations and protects donors who make one-time or larger-than-usual contributions from being asked to make such gifts again in the future. Anonymity can shield donors from association with controversial causes that they support. It can provide donors with an unobstructed view from which to observe, oversee and even directly shape the outcomes of their philanthropic involvement; conversely, it also allows recipients to concentrate on their responsibilities instead of looking over their shoulder at the presumed intentions of the donors.

Anonymous givers almost always complemented their instrumental rationale with an array of considerations about the value of anonymity as a matter of their moral or spiritual character.  If an instrumental approach is about anonymity as a rational means or end, a moral disposition is about a value-laden duty or calling.  Remaining hidden helps donors transcend the corrupting lures of self-importance. It can represent a moral or religious calling that encourages humility and a personal asceticism, which offers an antidote to competitive business and consumerism.  It can cultivate the virtues of benevolence and empathy, and counter feelings of superiority or noblesse oblige that donors may otherwise harbor.

 The Case Against Anonymous Giving

In addition to voicing reasons for giving anonymously, respondents expressed reservations.  Their case against anonymous giving was sometimes expressed in absolute terms, with givers arguing the reasons why public giving was always to be preferred.  At other times, especially among those donors who gave both anonymously and publicly, or who had shifted from anonymous to public giving over time, the case was less absolute.  In both instances, instrumental and ethical arguments came into play—often simultaneously. It should become clear that those who eschewed anonymity grounded their arguments in moral discourse no less than those who had embraced it.

One rationale for not giving anonymously was to make sure that donors are not hidden from public scrutiny and accountability.  In addition, some respondents claimed that being known as high-end contributors provides donors with greater opportunities for direct leadership participation in the day-to-day workings of a charity, allowing them to ensure that their gifts were producing satisfactory results. They also explained that donors who attach their name to their gift not only get to be more involved, they also allow charities to impose on them for their time and money.  Perhaps the most forceful case against anonymous giving was made by those who insisted that public giving, including lead or matching gifts in a campaign, set an example for others to be generous; because of this, charities often request a donor to be public.

Disciple or demigod: the dialectic of care and control

As the research for my article demonstrated, the dimension of concealment associated with anonymous giving introduces an added valence that accentuates the tendencies of all philanthropy toward sometimes being especially caring and other times producing careless, self-serving, and even manipulative behavior.  Through the anonymous gift, I wrote, the donor can act as disciple or demigod. The virtues and vices, advantages and disadvantages of anonymity are neighbors—easily flowing back and forth across each other’s boundaries.  This dual trajectory of anonymous giving I called the dialectic of care and control.

On the one hand, anonymity allows donors to secretly set in motion grants that substitute increased influence for accountability.  Such donors are akin to the mischievous demigods in Greek and Roman mythology who disguise themselves in human form to shape the fortunes of mortals.  Such intervention may produce positive outcomes, as from a disciple who serves others, but it is easy to fall into the temptation that allows donors to create effects without meeting the true needs of recipients.  Anonymity, regardless of intentions and ultimate consequences, invariably places at least a partial curb on how recipients can negotiate with a donor to influence how a gift is to be used.

At the same time, anonymous giving can cultivate a special reverence for respecting beneficiaries and their needs—while also animating a unique spiritual enrichment for the donor.  One interview respondent pointed out that anonymous giving releases recipients from a never-ending obligation to express gratitude. The anonymous giver is like Santa, he said, “the only person who gives you a gift whom you do not have to thank all year.”

Anonymity and Today’s Ultra Philanthropy

There have been many changes in philanthropy since I wrote my article, the major one being that more and more people, at a younger and younger age, have amassed significant private fortunes in the U.S. and across the world.  It is unclear whether John D. Rockefeller, in today’s dollars, was richer and gave more to charity than Bill Gates.  What is clear is that today’s number of ultra-wealthy individuals and families together represent a historical turning point in wealth and giving. There is more ability by more individuals to be what I refer to as hyperagents—individuals able to inaugurate new entrepreneurial philanthropic ventures or new directions within existing institutions.

Hyperagents are world builders.  They can nearly singlehandedly establish the organizational and cultural world they desire and within which “mere” agents live and work. The increased prevalence of ultra-philanthropy means that any positive and negative tendencies in anonymous giving have higher stakes for more benefactors and beneficiaries.

The intersection of institutional trends in philanthropy, such as the increased use of donor-advised-funds and LLCs, with the growing polarization of civic life, has heightened concerns about the need for donor transparency and the dangers of “dark money.” But it has also amplified the attractions of anonymous giving. Political divides and policy debates have always found their way into philanthropy.  But today, donors are often faced with organized forms of harassment, boycotts, verbal, and even physical threats from those who oppose their cause.

I have reported that one of the themes donors enunciate about the advantages of anonymous giving is the freedom from bother—be it from other charities or from children.  Today, the freedom from harassment has taken on new urgency with the specific fear of organized public stalking.  As a result, not only do some donors wish to be anonymous, but the charities they contribute to also hope to keep their list of contributors from public view.  The IRS recently decided that it no longer will require charities to file with it the Schedule B that lists donors.  How this will affect state requirements remains to be seen—though in two California court cases, a federal judge ruled that two charities need not provide the state with their Schedule Bs, in part based on evidence that the charities and their donors had been subjected to verbal, emotional, and physical threats, harassment, and intimidation.

While fear from reprisals has amplified the case for anonymity, including the use of donor advised funds that do not have to report the destiny of gifts by account holders, concern about the negative side of dark money is part of the case against anonymous giving.  The argument is that major donations profoundly influence public policy and the social agenda, and that lack of knowledge about a donor’s identity allows deductible contributions to flow into charities, political action committees, think tanks, universities and other institutions that shape culture and society, without adequate accountability.

In the end, the varied moral and civic consequences of a donor’s identity being public are dialectically related.  Across the political spectrum, that knowledge allows greater monitoring of and resistance to the purpose and use of the gift, while at the same time opening the door to the chilling of freedom of expression.

I leave it to others to decide whether contemporary controversies about harassment vs. transparency have created a new set of rationales for and against charitable giving or represent an extension of what I had already laid out in my publication. Surveying the contemporary landscape, I think the moral and instrumental meanings and practices of anonymous giving that I described in the 1994 article still pertain. For the most part, the quantitative changes in philanthropic hyperagency have not engendered qualitative changes in the moral and instrumental dynamics of anonymous giving that I found 25 years ago.

Across history as well as today, anonymous giving can be especially propitious or problematic. Today, as in the past, anonymous giving and its outcomes depend on the insight, competence, and sensitivity of its practitioners.  Now as a quarter century ago, anonymous donors can function as disciples of the public good, or as reckless demigods.

-Paul G. Schervish

Paul G. Schervish is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and retired founder and director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College. He was Fulbright Professor of Philanthropy at University College, Cork, Ireland, and serves as a consultant and speaker for families and for financial and development professionals.


[1] “The Sound of One Hand Clapping: The Case for and against Anonymous Giving,” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 5, no.  1 (April 1994): 1-26.

One thought on “Revisiting “Disciples or Demigods”: The Case For and Against Anonymous Giving Now and a Quarter Century Ago

  1. The anonymous donor landscape has been changed dramatically since the findings of the 35 interviews were published in 1994. One is the well-documented rise in donor-advised funds (DAFs) both at community foundations and at commercial institutions such as Schwab, Vanguard, etc.
    The other development is more often overlooked: donations made through crowdfunding companies such as PayPal, Network for Good, Go Fund Me, etc. Unlike the situations in the article, not even the Development Director necessarily knows the identities of donors who donated through Facebook (for example), nor does the donor get confirmation (by way of a receipt or thank-you) that the donation went to the right nonprofit — donors get receipts saying only that their donation went to the charitable arm of the crowdfunding company).
    Possible legislation and regulation are reasons why anonymous giving needs to be re-examined in the context of these developments.
    — Jan Masaoka, California Association of Nonprofits


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