The gift of privacy … or, I’ve Got a Secret

Following a presentation to a Rotary Club several years ago, I was thrilled to be approached quietly by a club member who informed me that he was going to start a scholarship fund for the club. And then he presented me with a check for $100,000!  I remember this occasion with great pleasure, needless to say. 

What sticks in my mind most about this gift was not just the amount or even the expedient manner in which it occurred, but rather what the donor said next:  “I want you to ensure that no one in the club ─ or my wife ─ ever learns that I was the one who made this gift.” 

Hmmmm … A tall order, one might think.  Happily, I was able to assure this gentleman that the Foundation could indeed protect his anonymity for as long as he wished.  Even “in perpetuity,” (Foundation parlance for “a very long time”!)

How is this possible?  Well, technology has certainly helped, as sophisticated database systems allow for enhanced privacy where requested.  And the nature of community foundations (in contrast to private foundations, for example) provides that names of individual donors can be kept anonymous, whereas donations made to private foundations are a matter of public record. 

Many donors opt for full public recognition in their giving, and we publicize their generosity with gratitude and celebration.  But for those who sometimes ─ or even occasionally – want a higher degree of privacy or even complete anonymity ─ we are happy to oblige.  And the numbers of donors who choose anonymity seem to be rising. 

A 2009 article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy offers the following perspective:  “Numerous studies conducted by the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy over the past 20 years have shown that an aversion to solicitations from other charities, and a desire to keep a gift secret from family or friends are the two most popular reasons for giving anonymously.”  For many others, however, I suspect that it is a choice borne of deep-rooted values of modesty and humility. 

For whatever reason, we honor this choice when requested.  For our generous Rotary donor of years past, we have honored our promise to keep his secret.  The fund bears the name of the Rotary Club and notes that it is a scholarship endowment ─ nothing more.  Frankly, I suspect that members of the club would not be surprised to learn who their mystery donor was.

As for his wife, if she ever found out, I promise she didn’t hear it from me!