Give anonymously or openly? One woman’s family story

I’m in the field of philanthropy. I not only advise on fundraising with organizations but I also advise donors on how best they can give away their money. It’s a great marriage of reciprocity and I’m honored to do this work. I love seeing the transformative effect on people who share their money with the world, and I love the effect of generosity on the people, issue, or cause receiving it.

Given this unique work of mine, it’s no wonder I’ve learned a lot from the wealthy donors whom I serve in my profession. While not being a person of high financial wealth myself, I still feel I have something in common with my fellow donors, even if only for a fleeting, altruistic moment.

One of the most intriguing practices I’ve gleaned from some major donors has been the personal choice of anonymity when they make a gift. By this I mean, making a charitable gift to an organization or to a family in need without your identity revealed. Of course, I understand that being anonymous in a philanthropic transaction can be considered quite virtuous sometimes, and certainly maintains humility for the donor and their family. It’s seen as a gesture of selflessness, of not calling attention to oneself for the kindness shared.

This is all well and good if both parties agree to these cultural codes.
But I thought about my own family in this case, and how it felt for us to receive the help of white people without seeing their faces, hearing their names, or getting to say thank you for ourselves. It was hard for my grandparents. They wondered what the generous family was concealing. Were they afraid of us? Didn’t they want to shake our hand? Did they find us scary or not clean? Did they think we might ask them for more?

It may sound odd to you I’m sure, but not revealing your face or your name was suspicious in my family’s culture. Hiding was not seen as noble to my grandparents. And so the gift from an unknown benefactor only added more shame to an already difficult, painful time in our lives. To reveal yourself as the giver allows the receiver to equalize things, to make things fair and balanced, by a simple thank you. In this small lesson from my grandparents, I learned that expressing gratitude could restore power to the recipient.

In socio-economic terms, you might say that being wealthy allows you the privilege of anonymity, safely protecting you from intrusive speculation and judgment, envy and inconvenient curiosity about your good fortune. But being poor and marginalized leaves you out there threadbare, financially “naked” for all to see. And for those who dare to ask for help—you are virtually stripped of dignity for your courage. It’s a public gesture that takes a very private moment away from a person in need, and gives them no choice.

I saw this in my grandparents’ faces, as I told them some folks at church wanted them to have the bag of groceries, and no, they would not be coming to introduce themselves. Grandma and Grandpa became quiet, as if they had done something wrong by being hungry. Then they asked me quietly to please express their gratitude to the nun who had dropped off the secret package. Of course, I did as I was told at the age of nine.

At the end of the day, I would definitely call myself an ethical fundraiser and advisor. I have no problem complying with my clients’ wishes for anonymity. It’s my job and I respect what each family wants to do in their response to need in the world. But some part of me, some part of the little girl in me, still wants donors to come out of the philanthropic closet, hand the check to the community themselves and take that chance of being recognized as the human beings that they are.

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Pilar Gonzales is an advisor, coach and consultant, serving nonprofit leaders, donors and their families in California’s Bay Area and throughout the US. She’s been a fundraiser for over 20 years in the social justice movement and currently is an advisor to IDEX, a global funder of social justice innovation, and serves on the Board of Bolder Giving.

Her personal philanthropic story has been featured on NPR’s Marketplace and in PEOPLE Magazine, who listed her as one of the “Heroes among Us” for her commitment to helping marginalized workers in California. She is part of a founding team at RSF Social Finance, which produces Conversations on Money, Race & Class, exploring the experience of money in our lives. When asked about her resilience in this work, Pilar always credits her identity as the daughter & granddaughter of migrant farm workers and factory workers.

Visit www.pilargonzales.com for more information on Pilar’s work.

3 Responses

  1. Pingback : Give anonymously or openly? One woman’s family story | La Prensa de Western Massachusetts

  2. Pilar- I so appreciate your perspective and the way you presented it here. Some of my roots as a giver are in the Jewish world of Maimonides and similar thinkers, where anonymity is widely aspired to. Until reading your piece, i had simply never thought about the distrust and shame that anonymous gifts might engender in the recipient. In my own giving, I have found great meaning in looking people in the eye. Thank you for such a thought-provoking and well-written article. I will share it! Jill

  3. Anton A

    I want to commend you, Pilar, for showing us yet another fold to the lofty act of generosity through the lens of your “family culture” as you called it. Though your grandparents would have preferred to have known the names, faces, and perhaps even the color of those giving hands. But sometimes, we all have to be content and accept the fact that generosity ought not need to hinge on “who gave what to who, when; and most importantly, why”. I personally have been helped by so-called “anonymous benefactors” in my lifetime when I was a child, and I am proud to say that this had shaped me to be the person that I am today who does not hesitate much to give to a total stranger without being too attached to the results. In conclusion: All forms of giving is noble in principle no matter which angle it is viewed from. If the giver is a known entity — great! Thank them; If anonymous — just as great! Thank them back, albeit anonymously if you so choose to do. No matter what the giver’s motive might have been behind the unfathomable scene. You see, it only helps if we realize that some philanthropist could have just as easily chosen NOT to give a thing to a anyone and burn it all instead. Therefore, it is up to the recipient to accept the gift with heartfelt gratitude so they may be able to look deep within their souls to find God who mysteriously caused these people to unclench their fists in an incomprehensible gesture of generosity. With enough faith, you will be surprised that someday a selfless and a grateful reciprocator spirit would be born within the former recipient’s heart who will return the favor to a total stranger without batting an eyelash. For true act of generosity is less of a linear one, but an omnidirectional one.

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