Anonymous giving is something we rarely talk about. Some might argue the nature of the topic makes it elusive; it is intrinsically invisible. Another reason we skirt around the topic is because some would prefer to not give anonymously, and to point it out is awkward.
People often want to be noticed when they give. For this reason, many organizations encourage the type of giving that leads to noticeable donations. This is often promoted by nonprofit organizations that want big and public donations. But it is becoming a more prominent fixture in fundraising as technology plays a larger role in giving.
Consider a business model that is becoming well-known: crowdfunding. On many familiar sites, more than two-thirds of people choose the option to be acknowledged publicly for their gifts. On the one hand, this makes sense. By making their names known, they may encourage others, especially those they know, to give also.
But shouldn’t most giving be anonymous? Shouldn’t the greatest satisfaction we receive come from giving, not for being acknowledged for giving? Shouldn’t systems of giving encourage more anonymous gifts?
Charitable donation culture is often dominated by grand experiences. Fundraising events can involve red carpet affairs, expensive meals or gala receptions. Big races for cures are organized. Often humanitarian trips for donors are encouraged during which those who give visit the people of developing countries who receive assistance.
These efforts are good. But are they the best?
Many of the nonprofit organizations in the world want to see dramatic changes take place. Nonprofit organizations campaign for causes as diverse as the end of animal abuse to the cessation of the exploitation of child sex workers. In cases like these, it can be argued that the root cause of the problem is that those to blame are self-centered and selfish. Is it too big a leap to see that by playing to the self-centeredness of potential donors, we may be delaying the arrival of the day when self-centered ills can be fully addressed?
On the one hand many might ask what’s the problem with encouraging people to give publicly? People make donations because it makes them look and feel good. Is that wrong? It’s the way we often operate in our society. The question is: Can’t we be more effective over the long term if we can be motivated by something greater than public recognition?
Another argument in favor of anonymous giving is purely economic. With social, economic and environmental crises all around us, we need well-funded nonprofits more than ever. What would be better is if money spent on galas were to go for services needed by those less fortunate.
Some may say we are missing the point. Organizations need the money now. More money will come in if we play to the need people feel to be recognized. It is completely understandable that people would make this argument. The needs are great and the time is now. But it is more apparent that many of the groups that are best positioned to bring about humble and meaningful long-term change are exactly the organizations that choose not to play the social needs of donors. These better organizations do not want to spend the money to recognize the needs of those who want to be seen. They would rather spend the money where it needs to be spent and they would prefer to work with donors who give generously and anonymously.
How to stay anonymous: Act Now
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development.
Greta Crofts, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.