Attention, Humble Philanthropists: Your Low Profile Is Hurting Your Cause

I’ve been digging into the Giving Pledge lately, learning more about how the biggest fundraising campaign in history is going.

One thing I’ve discovered is that there are quite a few people who plan to give away most of their wealth but have not signed the pledge. The reasons vary, with some philanthropists fearing that raising their profile will bring more grantseekers to their door.

Another factor, though, is humility. Many donors feel it’s unseemly to draw attention to their giving. The billionaire Daniel D’Aniello, who co-founded the Carlyle Group, is a good example. While he’s said most of his wealth is destined for philanthropy, he hasn’t joined the pledge, telling the Washington Post that it seemed too showy. “The suit didn’t fit yet. It just didn’t fit.”

The humility that often surrounds philanthropy doesn’t get much attention. We tend to be too busy marveling at the egotism in the sector—like how a guy who’s never been known to care about classical music would give $100 million to plaster his name on the home of the New York Philharmonic. Or how a Wall Street couple would offer $20 million to a college if it renamed itself—and then pull the gift when it didn’t.

But I’d argue that, in fact, humility is far more common in the top tiers of philanthropy than egotism. I’d also say that this is a problem.

In terms of the prevalence of humility, my evidence is purely anecdotal: Our writers at Inside Philanthropy have come across innumerable donors who are engaged in high-level giving with barely a peep. They issue no press releases about their gifts, maintain no websites, turn down all media inquires, and otherwise stay mum about great acts of generosity. To be sure, there are practical reasons for this—such as the desire to avoid solicitation by fundraisers.

But keeping quiet about one’s giving also flows from religious and cultural beliefs. In the Jewish faith, anonymous giving is considered among the highest forms of charity. Part of the thinking is that one who gives anonymously avoids putting themselves in a superior position—especially vis-a-vis those who are receiving. That mattered more in earlier times, when most charity was hyper-local, with people helping each other in their communities. But the ethos has endured, and not just in Jewish philanthropy. A lot of Christian donors feel the same way. Meanwhile, in some cultural milieus—think old-school WASP values—there’s also discomfort with the idea of drawing attention to one’s good works, which are supposed be done in a spirit of service, without a hint of self-aggrandizement.

All this explains why in a database of gifts of at least one million dollars made since 2000, you’ll find nearly 1,000 gifts that were made anonymously, including over 100 gifts of $20 million and up. Many gifts besides those recorded have been effectively anonymous—with only the donor and the recipient aware of the gift (until, that is, Inside Philanthropy goes snooping through the 990s.)

So why is all this low-profile giving a problem?

Well, quite apart from the issue of transparency—and how it’s hard to know what most philanthropists have been up to lately—donors who operate so quietly are hurting their own causes.

They do so in two ways.

First, by flying below the radar, they're not inspiring others to give. In contrast, when wealthy people see others step forward to help, they’re more likely to think, "Gee, maybe I should be doing something, too." The bigger a public gift is, the more likely it is to push other wealthy people to rethink their own attitudes: "Wow, if so-and-so can give that much, maybe I should be doing more." That’s partly the logic behind those Robin Hood galas, where finance types are exhorted in front of their peers to write larger checks for anti-poverty efforts in New York.

It’s also why university development departments put so much work into touting major gifts, aiming to rally other alums to step forward. Is there an element of competition here? Yes. Is there some guilt tripping involved? Sure. Do these somewhat distasteful tactics work? Absolutely, as attested by the stunning sums raised by Robin Hood and the success of innumerable endowment campaigns.

Yet these tactics only work when donors are willing to go public, which is why institutions often fight suggestions to keep gifts anonymous, and why they send out press releases about big gifts that make donors cringe. Indeed, the secret truth about naming rights is that often it’s not the donors pushing for naming, but the institutions, which see them as a key cheerleading device. Named buildings, scholarship funds, centers, and chairs offer reminders at every turn on campus that universities are built by gifts.

But there’s a second reason that philanthropists can benefit their causes via publicity. Which is that, if you’re doing something effective with your giving, you’ll have more impact by spreading the word. That’s because other donors will be more likely to see what you’re doing and direct money to the same organizations or strategies.

In part, philanthropy is a game of follow the leader. Because few funders have the resources to move the needle on their own, they need others to embrace their causes. But nobody is going to follow you if they don’t know what you’re doing. The professionalized foundations get that, which is why they invest heavily in publicizing their grantmaking, and the strategies behind it.

I’m not suggesting that every major donor and family foundation needs to go out and hire communications staff. But a few basics can help your cause, like a having a website that explains your grantmaking, putting out press releases when you do something big or learn evidence of impact, and granting the occasional media interview. (Ideally, with Inside Philanthropy!)

If you’re making the world a better place, the spotlight is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. Let it find you now and again.

See More Articles by David Callahan