Extreme Generosity: Do you give anonymously?

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Extreme Generosity
Salvation Army red kettle

THE SALVATION ARMY KETTLE first appeared in 1891 in San Francisco, when a crab pot was hung at the Oakland ferry landing for donations to fund a Christmas dinner for the poor. The custom of anonymously dropping pure gold into the kettles was first spotted in 1982 in Crystal Lake, Illinois. In the 30 years since then, anonymous gold donations have ranged from early American gold coins to a gold ring complete with a diamond to a pair of gold molars dropped in a kettle in York, Pennsylvania. Photo by the Salvation Army.

Hospitals, museums, schools, and other institutions around the country bear the names of their generous benefactors. Inside these institutions, different places—rooms, auditoriums, and public areas—display the names of other donors. Without such generosity, these institutions wouldn’t thrive, survive—or even exist.

But are these examples of extreme generosity?

Some donors give money anonymously—exemplars of extreme generosity. In 2010, Baylor University received an anonymous gift of $200 million. In 2013, The Community Foundation for Muskegon County (Michigan) received an anonymous gift of $9 million.

Since 1982, mysterious donors around the country have dropped gold coins, diamonds, and jewelry into the Christmas kettles of the Salvation Army.

What makes anonymous giving extreme generosity? It’s that the benefactor does not expect to derive any ancillary publicity benefits from the donation.

The main argument against anonymous giving is that it reduces giving by subsequent givers. This is a long-held assumption. Two British researchers put it to the test by analyzing thousands of donations on behalf of runners in the 2010 London Marathon. What they found ran counter to conventional wisdom. Anonymous giving actually increased subsequent donations. The researchers speculated that anonymous giving signals the quality of a charity because anonymous givers don’t receive any personal reputation benefits.

Perhaps Maimonides, a renowned medieval rabbi, philosopher, and physician, had it right: One of the highest forms of charity is giving anonymously.

Have you been an anonymous giver?

Is giving anonymously a truer form of charity?

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  1. Britt says

    If the question is what’s a truer form of charity, then the question is about motive, and anonymous giving can be a test of one’s motive for giving. However, I would add that the degree of sacrifice involved in giving is an even truer test. For instance, if the person in the above example that donated $200 million to Baylor University had $1 billion, how much of a sacrifice was his gift, really? If that were the case, he wouldn’t even miss it and perhaps he didn’t want the financial scrutiny that publicly making the donation might bring. Good and bad motives are often on clear display without anonymity. For example, Luke 12:38-44: “And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” I would add that even if the widow’s gift was a huge sacrifice, if it was done for acclaim then it was not the “truest” charity. Therefore, anonymity plays an important role as well.