At what price anonymity?

If you accept the argument that those who “have” should share it with others should they also be expected to put their name on it?

Peter Singer, in a recent article in the NY Times Magazine (December 17, 2006, available only for subscribers or by purchase) puts forth the moral argument for individual philanthropy. Not only should we all participate: “our obligation to the poor is not just one of providing assistance to strangers but one of compensation for harms that we have caused and are still causing them” but, he argues, participating to the level of our individual fair share isn’t enough. He suggests, quite rightly, that as individuals we KNOW that others aren’t going to do their fair share (shame on them) and because we know that, our obligations extend further. “We might justifiably be furious with those who are not doing their fair share, but our anger with them is not a reason for letting…children die.” I think many of us, particularly those engaged in the conversations on this site, buy this logic.

But when you buy the moral argument for philanthropy, you might also find yourself tangled up with protocols you were taught as a child. I know I was taught that charity should be given silently and without regard for recognition. In fact, recognition was to be actively avoided. It cheapened the act. But at what cost do we protect our anonymity? And, do individual acts of charity carry a different set of rules than acts of philanthropy? I was speaking with a foundation CEO the other day who is really struggling with respecting the privacy of donors while knowing that there is a network effect he’s missing because he can’t use their names to get others off the dime. Anonymity carries a price.

I look at it this way: if you’re really interested in changing something for the long-term you need to step up and put your name on it. It can help. People aren’t always motivated to join a cause at the onset for all the right reasons. But if you can get them on the bus you can find them the right seat later. Sure, some people will think you’re just seeking the glory…and maybe every act of charity doesn’t need a publicity campaign…but I think part of our moral obligation to engage in philanthropy also includes bringing others to the movement and to do that, we need to stand up and be counted.

Nancy DeFauw

Posted at 12:40 PM, Jan 16, 2007 in Global Philanthropy | High Net Worth Donors | Permalink | Comment