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December 6, 2017; Palo Alto Weekly

There are many reasons for giving anonymously. Some don’t wish to be known for having the capacity to make a big donation, since that puts you on development directors’ radar screens. For others, it is a choice based on their faith and not wanting to obtain immodest honor from public acknowledgement of the gift.

But some kinds of nonprofits and public bodies are finding donor anonymity at odds with their policies around transparency.

Recently, the Palo Alto School Board passed a revision to its gift acceptance policy that would make it possible to reveal the name of an anonymous donor to the members of the school board. A report on the meeting in the online version of the Palo Alto Weekly indicates that there was some significant disagreement on the board about the policy revision with it passing by a narrow 3–2 vote.

The disclosure policy is only internal; if the gift is accepted, then the name of the donor who has chosen to be anonymous will not be made known to the general public. The issue at hand is if the gift is from a source or restricted in such a way that it could put the district’s reputation or finances at risk. For any anonymous gift over $50,000, the superintendent is ordered to determine who the donor is and to share that information privately with each member of the school board. This process can be waived at a meeting of the school board.

A draft of the revised policy includes an alternative to the revision. In that case, the superintendent would only be required to share the name of the donor with the school board if there was a potential conflict of interest. That revision never came out of committee and the board voted to accept the requirement of internal disclosure.

One school board member who voted against the policy did so because he noted that this policy outlines a way of getting around California’s Brown Act, which requires that in most cases decisions and deliberations of public bodies like school boards should be open to the public. The school board member argues that giving the superintendent the right to go to each member individually skirts that rule, and so sets a potentially dangerous precedent.

The Palo Alto School Board is not alone in having these deliberations. A similar discussion is being held at the US Office of Government Ethics (OGE). The OGE has been asked for advice from the White House about staffers being able to accept anonymous donations as they establish legal defense funds for themselves. Currently, the policy prohibits the acceptance of anonymous gifts, although there had been rumor that a change was being made that would have allowed them.

For the most part, nonprofits have gift acceptance policies that honor the wishes of an anonymous donor. If the donor wishes not to have the gift made public, the nonprofit will gladly and gratefully act accordingly. Recently, however, the issue has become a major point of contention among certain types of groups. The public has a right to know (and is wise to understand) if a group is being influenced or essentially bought outright by donors. In nonprofit media outlets, for instance, the politics of a donor or sponsor may act to taint news coverage. For this reason, the shield of anonymity is frowned upon because it blocks the reader’s line of sight.

In the cases of Palo Alto and the US OGE, we are learning that the idea is a little more complex in a public sector or political environment. In those cases, there is potentially a real need to publicly consider the source and intent of a gift. If the Johnson Amendment, which guarantees the nonpartisan nature of a nonprofit’s work, is repealed, the nonprofit sector may have to grapple with these issues as well.—Rob Meiksins