Is Anonymous Philanthropy Really the Most Virtuous?

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May 10, 2013; New York Times

One of the underlying values shaping policy debates about ethical philanthropy is whether one believes charity is an essentially private activity or a public one. When New York Times writer Mark Oppenheimer explored Judeo-Christian belief systems for insight, he found complicated answers.

At first glance, a religious lens might favor an anonymous gift as more virtuous than a public one. “When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets,” Jesus preaches in the Gospel of Matthew. Contemporary Reform rabbi and author Lawrence Kushner modernizes this message, stating, “The goal of all religion is to help you outwit your ego, shoot the sucker between the eyes, get it out of the way.” Gaining prestige among peers for charitable activity, or even gaining naming rights for a building or event, surely transmutes the charitable impulse into self-aggrandizement—even if the gift results in valuable civic assets like a museum, a university, or a hospital. Or does it?

From a religious perspective, it’s better for those with resources to give quietly, without expectation of recognition, so as not to lord it over those with need, right? But there’s also a tradition in most religions of bearing witness publicly to one’s beliefs. By that gauge, public giving takes on a different and more virtuous role than private giving. Public giving models generosity and builds a culture of caring philanthropy. For example, philosopher Patricia Illingworth points out that the “giving pledge” by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to donate half their fortunes to charity only drew similar generosity from their wealthy peers because it was publicly announced.

It can sometimes be more self-serving or downright uncharitable to choose the route of anonymous giving. Some donors may choose the veil of anonymity to protect themselves from being barraged with additional donation requests, even if lending their name would draw new donations to their selected charities. Some may be uncomfortable with having any direct relationship with the “others” who benefit from their donation. Princeton ethics professor Eric Gregory further argues that if the charitable act is “just a matter of writing checks,” anonymous giving can overly sanitize what should be an authentically human connection.

From a Judeo-Christian perspective, a donor can choose either path, so long as one acts with humility. So which do you choose as an individual donor? From a nonprofit perspective, all gifts help advance our causes. How should nonprofits position themselves with respect to the ethical and policy implications of charity as a private vs. public activity? If you see charity as an individual activity, you may fall on the side of public policies that protect donor anonymity. If you see it as a cultural influence, you’d be more inclined to support voluntary and sometimes mandatory disclosure of donations. Where do you stand?—Kathi Jaworski