Giving Anonymously: A Personal Struggle - Exponent Philanthropy
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Giving Anonymously: A Personal Struggle

Historically we have given anonymously in the communities where we live. We have done so because it is a value of ours, because we do not want people to know we have money, because we do not want to make some of our friends uncomfortable, because we feel vulnerable in a world where people with money can be taken advantage of, because we believe that one of the higher forms of giving is to give without being recognized, and because we are private and humble.

In this day and age, it is becoming harder to give anonymously.

You can look up anyone’s 990 or 990-PF on the Internet. You can Google anyone and find out a bit of information. We give the organizations we work with a grant agreement and in it is a confidentiality clause. Try as we might, sometimes they slip up and our name winds up in their annual report or some other document and then out to the Internet and community it goes.

I know it doesn’t help that our family’s name is in the name of the foundation. We could change the name of the foundation, and in fact we are in discussions about that. One of the founders and board members is ambivalent about it. In one sentence he will say, ‘no I don’t care who knows and I like being known as a funder’ and then go ahead and agree to a name change.

I do feel an obligation to take his feelings into consideration. It was his money, after all, that started the foundation. How do I honor both wishes? Is it possible?

As for me, I am ambivalent. It is hard to lead us when I am of mixed feelings. I value giving anonymously, but I do know that the way we are currently operating is not allowing me to make the kind of difference I would like to in the community.

What are your thoughts? How do you handle these issues? Talk to me, please.


  1. Alison Powell

    It sounds like you are struggling through a difficult decision. At Bridgespan, we created this “FAQ” for donors seeking to decide to give anonymously or publicly. There are, as you note, many shades of grey in the decision process. You may find this document useful in your search, or perhaps as a discussion tool with your board. I’d love to hear whether you found it helpful and if you have any feedback. It’s located here:

  2. Kathy

    Most of our board of directors thinks that recognition of donors is very important, while a minority thinks that giving is very personal and should not be publicized. For the first time we’ll be offering the option of donating anonymously.

  3. I am the public face of a family foundation that gives anonymously. I do not believe, as many non-profits will try to convince you, that it lessens their impact to give anonymously. We actually encourage grantees to describe our initiatives in their annual report to attract new donors, and have a track record of succeeding. The cost is rather in the joy of giving. I do all the site visits. My funders don’t get to see the amazement on young people’s faces as the curtain goes up on a theater experience they have never had. They don’t get to talk to a teenage artist who has never been to a museum before, let alone have a summer fellowship there. I sometimes feel guilty that I get to experience first hand all the good the donors are doing in the world, and they only hear it reported by me.
    Tips on preserving anonymity when you want to: ask them to track the gift as Anon Found or at least by the initials only of the Foundation, and make sure you remind them every time you talk to them the importance of the privacy. Remind them to do it even in their financials, which is where they are most likely to slip.
    Once in 12 years of my representing funders anonymously has a grantee figured out who a donor was. My response to them was it is not in your interests to use that information, because you will never get funding again if you use it. Problem solved.
    From what you have written, your foundation has a strong culture of privacy. I do not believe that changing the name of the foundation will protect the family’s privacy for all the reasons you mentioned. I do believe that you can find a way to do site visits, and have an engaged relationship with your grantees, saying you represent an anonymous foundation– and the grantees will honor your privacy.
    Mally Cox-Chapman

  4. ASF

    Thank you for sharing your experiences, Mally and Kathy. And, Alison, thanks for the link to your FAQ for donors. Good set of questions to consider when weighing the options.

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