Recognizing the reality of recognition

This post originally appeared on Hilborn’s Charity ENews

SpotlightDuring a coffee meeting last week a colleague of mine proclaimed that most philanthropists were raving egomaniacs who donated money either for their own self-aggrandizement or to further business interests. “All they really want is their name on something,” she said. It’s an opinion that’s widely held. It’s also largely unfounded.

A recent article by David Callahan in Inside Philanthropy focuses on the humility factor in major gift philanthropy. Interestingly, he reveals that a U.S. database of gifts of at least $1M made since 2000 lists over 1,000 donations that were given anonymously including 100 gifts of $20M or more. While those gifts may represent a small percentage of the total, it’s still a very significant number of donors who want their name left out of it.

Callahan speculates that the reason for the humility is two-fold. Many donors espouse anonymity as a matter of principle while others are simply trying to avoid the additional solicitations that notoriety brings. He correctly points out that this humility is not in the best interest of the organizations being supported. It starves them of the awareness that comes with major gift announcements and eliminates the potential for motivating other donors.

But what do philanthropists really think about recognition? Why do they or don’t they want their names attached to a gift? Our interviews with dozens of Canada’s top philanthropists revealed very sophisticated and, for the most part, very principled approaches to recognition.

Many donors downplayed the role of recognition in their philanthropic decisions. Carlo Fidani clearly felt that the impact of the gift was paramount when he posed and answered his rhetorical question.  “Is it about the name or is it about the reason for giving? It is always about the reason for giving. The name is a nice gesture, but it’s not a reason for giving.”

Hal Jackman ascribed respect to donors who remain anonymous when he told us, “I would say that it is more noble.”

The primary motivation for those donors who were open to receiving recognition was a combination of legacy and wanting to inspire their children. Issy Sharp, as a veteran in the philanthropic arena, was able to step back and sum it up astutely. “Probably one of the best ways to get big money is name recognition. Because that’s what people want. They want legacy and family tradition.” As if to confirm Sharp’s insight, David Cynammon said, “I will tell you that recognition is very important and I will give you the absolute honest reason for me and the only reason is for my kids to see it.”

Philanthropists are certainly cognizant of the benefits that recognition brings to the organizations they support. In talking about gifts made by her father and their family foundation, Julianna Sprott displayed a deep understanding of motivation. “It is not the ego-stroke, it is the ripple-effect outward. Someone might see the Sprott name on something and say, ‘I didn’t know Eric did that, and he doesn’t make bad investments, so maybe we should too.’ I think there is power in that.”

Does it really work that way? Are others ever incented to give because of the generosity of someone they know? According to Eddie Sonshine it does. In talking about a major gift made to and prominently recognized by a museum in Israel, he recounted, “To this day, there doesn’t seem to be a month that doesn’t go by that we don’t get a call or an email from someone who says, we walked through the museum, and we saw your name and we were so inspired.”

David Cynammon took a more cynical, and perhaps more realistic, approach to the way in which one gift can lead to others. “It might even create competition. You know somebody else who says ‘hey I don’t have my name on a hospital and I better get it up there.” That certainly sounds like the kind of celebrity in philanthropy that people find offensive. But Cynammon finishes his point with a no-nonsense reality check. “The bottom line is that money is going to worthwhile causes and is inevitably helping people. And if that means a game amongst rich people, so what?”

While anonymity is often a way of avoiding attention – either for practical or principled reasons, Jay Hennick presented no-name giving as a form of protest. He was forced to reconcile what he saw as the disconcerting fundraising behavior of an organization with his affinity for the cause and many of its board members. Characteristically he forged the path less traveled. “I have given a gift because one of the organization’s board members is one of our corporate board members and I love him. And there’s a big plaque that says Anonymous there. My wife thinks I’m crazy, but I say that I don’t want [them] to know the money is from me. Because somebody has to protest the way that they deal with their donors.”

Not surprisingly, our conversations with philanthropists provided a more nuanced understanding of the many facets of recognition. Their perspectives belie my colleague’s presumption of complete self-involvement but also deny the existence of totally altruistic humility.

There is no question that the issues surrounding gift recognition necessitate finding the balance between the needs of the donor and those of the organization. Organizations that get to know more about the philanthropists who support them and understand more about their personal motivation will have a better chance of overcoming the hurdle of humility.


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