One Time to Give the Money Back

One Time to Give the Money Back

It comes up periodically, and it came up again at this year’s Rally, the national land trust conference.

Someone asked how they should handle it when a major donor requests that their gift be treated as anonymous – even from the board. And I answered the question directly and bluntly:

“Give the money back.”


I waited until the gasp had made its way through the session participants, and then explained why.

“Your Board Members are the final authority for anything that happens at the organization. The buck stops there. There should be NOTHING whatsoever that they are not allowed to know, and especially about matters related to finance and fundraising – PERIOD.”

It wasn’t the answer anyone expected, and I said it with conviction. I meant no disrespect to the question or to the questioner. It’s a good question. And it comes up often enough that I decided it needed its own post, here.

Many donors want to keep their giving private and absent any fanfare. Some want it hidden from someone specific for any number of reasons. Maybe that someone is a Board Member. So they make what would seem to be a reasonable request: please treat this gift as completely anonymous, even internally. They rarely see themselves as putting the recipient, the Executive Director or perhaps another land trust leader, in a difficult position.

The request for anonymity can put the organization in a difficult position also. One land trust I worked with in Wisconsin had a $400,000 project for which a single donor had stepped up with a $300,000 lead gift. He requested anonymity, and the land trust agreed. The problem was that no one else quite trusted the story, and rumors spread quickly in the small community about who the donor might be and what might really be going on, including purchasing the land for private use.

In most cases, donors really mean that they do not want to have the fact of their gift publicized in the newsletter, in annual reports, on the website, and so on. But they cross a line when they don’t want the board members to know about it.

So what do you do? Explain that your organization has protocols in place to prevent donors from having their gifts publicized against their wishes. Explain that you will do everything you can to ensure that those protocols get followed. Explain that the protocols do not extend to the Board, and that Board Members regularly review all gifts as part of their fiduciary responsibility.

If the donor insists, hand the check back.

See also Anonymity Isn’t Necessarily Friendly

Your comments are welcomed.


Photo credit: Photo by Walt Kaesler.

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