Anonymity isn’t Necessarily Friendly

Anonymity isn’t Necessarily Friendly

A land trust was recently confronted with a peculiar problem. A major donor with a keen and personal interest in protecting a specific piece of property offered an enabling gift equal to, and restricted to, the entire purchase price of the property. The gift amount equaled about 75% of the total “conservation costs” of the project, including stewardship endowment, closing costs, and so on. The condition was that donor’s identity and even the dollar value of the gift were to remain completely secret.

Refusing the gift was never seriously considered, but the land trust was confronted with all sorts of unfortunate problems related to the donor’s wish to remain anonymous. Several other prospects doubted publicly that the land trust could raise all the money. They were skeptical at the optimism expressed by land trust leaders and reluctant to give to a project they were sure would fail. Before too long, the rumor mill went to work with scenarios much worse than the reality, including one where the land trust was supposedly running a scam to buy the property and develop it themselves to great profit.

Before I go any further, let me state very clearly that a donor’s wishes with regard to anonymity must always be honored. I would never advocate violating such a restriction.

Nonetheless, anonymity rarely serves the organization, and that is increasingly true as the value of the gift grows. Anonymity, in the case study above, robbed the organization of the donor confidence that comes when 75% of the money for a particular project has been raised. Anonymity also robbed the organization of the credibility an endorsement from a prominent community citizen publicly making such a gift would have provided. The gift could have been incredibly inspiring to other donors. In fact it didn’t inspire anyone else to give and probably caused some to give less or not to give at all.

Donors wish to remain anonymous for any number of reasons associated with the attention that inevitably follows making extraordinary gifts. Maybe other organizations they support start paying extra, unwanted attention to them as prospects. Maybe they feel their friends or family (kids?) might not approve. Maybe they are simply uncomfortable with any public attention at all.

Sometimes organizations make the gift public even though it’s anonymous – not the same oomph, but better than not being able to talk about the gift at all. Sometimes organizations are able to make the case for the donor to come forward. But most of the time, anonymous gifts stay in relative obscurity.

Here are several things you can do to minimize donor anonymity:

  • First of all, clearly understand the issue yourself, and talk about it openly with members of your Board. Donors making significant gifts help the organization in several ways, including setting the bar for others and inspiring them to follow suit.
  • Second, do not ask, directly or indirectly, whether a donor wishes to remain anonymous. If they do, they will tell you. If not asking makes you squirm, ask how they wish to be listed, rather than asking whether they wish to be listed.
  • Third, when a donor makes it clear that they wish to remain anonymous, ask questions to clarify how they feel. Seek permission to let the Board know, for example; or perhaps to share the story with other donors considering similar gifts. The donor may simply not want you to include the gift in a news release, or may wish to be excluded from published lists, such as might be found in      an Annual Report.
  • Finally, share with the donor any gifts that might come in that were inspired by their largesse. Knowing that their gift made a difference not just for its financial value but also for its inspirational value, can reinforce their decision in a positive way.

All organizations should have a Gift Acceptance Policy that addresses the issue of Anonymity. For a generic policy that you can modify to suit your organizational specifics, send me an email.

As always, your comments, questions, and anecdotes are welcomed here.

Have a great week,


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