Why donors choose anonymity

The Inheritance Project understands, from the inside out, why so many philanthropists whose wealth is inherited prefer anonymity. In our experience interviewing heirs, many told us that “being outed” was their worst fear. “The question ‘What do you do?’ always terrifies me” was a typical comment. Yet most inheritors are philanthropists, though not usually on the scale that Carol Newell (keep reading) can achieve. Some remain anonymous indefinitely, while others decide—for a variety of complex reasons—to “come out” at some point in their giving.

The following article from Toronto’s Globe and Mail (November 4) offers an interesting perspective on anonymous giving:

“Carol Newell, 55, spent a decade as a secret philanthropist. From her offices in Vancouver, she has infused more than $60-million into non-profit organizations and businesses committed to environmental causes and social change. But you won’t find any public gardens, protected watersheds or wind farms emblazoned with her name.

Anonymity was her strategy for leading a normal life, Ms. Newell says.

Born in New York State, she inherited the bulk of her Newell Rubbermaid fortune at age 34. After moving to Canada, she quietly set up the Endswell Foundation in Vancouver in 1991 and worked through a business partner to get help with decision-making and administrative details. Only a small circle of friends knew the extent of her wealth and philanthropic work, Ms. Newell says, adding that secrecy made her ‘extremely shy’ at social events. ‘I avoided many conversations with people because I didn’t want them to ask me what I did for a living. I didn’t want to be labelled and treated differently because of my wealth. I still feel that way.’

Anonymous giving isn’t the norm, philanthropy experts say. Far more common are the boldface names that brand everything from hockey-rink seats to hospital wings, often at fundraisers’ insistence. Nevertheless, a small percentage of philanthropists choose to remain nameless for business, personal or spiritual reasons, says Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. The exact number is difficult to determine since anonymous gifts don’t get much publicity, he adds: ‘You just don’t know.’”