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The Business Of Giving: The Anonymous Donor


Shhh! Don't tell anyone I gave you $10,000,000.


Just before Memorial Day, New York City media was all aflutter over news that an anonymous donor had come to the rescue of St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church in Manhattan's East Village. The do-gooder handed over $20 million to save it from demolition, restore it so it can reopen, establish an endowment and support its school (as well as other Catholic schools).

Neither the media nor the embattled house of worship revealed the donor's name (although Cardinal Egan did let slip in a statement that the donor was a man). A rare altruist who doesn't want credit for a good deed?

Many donors are motivated by the limelight and want their names listed in a charity's annual report so their peers -- and the world -- will take note of their efforts. But an elite class of wealthy donors shun the notice and prefer gifts to remain anonymous. And according to an article in The Wall Street Journal, this trend is on the rise. Citing statistics from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, The Journal states there were 37 anonymous gifts of $5 million or more in 2007, up from 27 in 2006 and 13 in 2004.

There are many reasons donors prefer anonymity. According to the same article, they include avoiding solicitations from other charities, preventing conflicts with relatives who either had other ideas about how to best spend the money or were unaware it ever existed, as well as protecting their privacy and that of their family.

Others may be driven by an impulse with a more religious connotation: Anonymous gifts are seen as more modest and spiritual. This idea dates back to the 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who conceived of a ladder of giving with eight rungs: The higher the rung, the higher the moral value. When the recipient doesn't know the identity of the donor, the donor has achieved the sixth rung; if neither knows the other's identity, that's the seventh rung; the eighth is achieved when the donor gives money or time to help an individual achieve self-sufficiency.

While the St. Brigid's donor doesn't, according to Maimonides' principle, reach the sixth rung (the Cardinal knows who it is, after all), he does achieve that higher moral value by keeping his identity hidden from the public - and giving to a religious institution to boot.

The bottom line here: You can choose exactly how you give. If, like the St. Brigid's donor, you can give a major gift and want your identity revealed to the recipient but not to the public, make your wishes crystal clear when you write the check. If you want to achieve Maimonides' second highest rung, drop a money order made out to the charity of your choice in the mail with no return address. But unless you're giving to an individual, and don't want them to know your identity, you may as well reap the tax benefits to which you're entitled by letting the charity know who you are.

But no matter what you decide, you're going to feel great because you gave.

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