Steve's Reflections


In 1999 and 2000, Steve Kirsch outlined his thoughts on a variety of philanthropic and political reform topics. Please select from the list to find those of interest to you.

Steve’s Reflections #12

Anonymous Giving

Is the "highest form of philanthropy" anonymous giving? I don’t think so.

I tend to focus on the result of the giving, not the recognition or the question of whether I get recognition. For example, in the United Way crisis, would it have been more EFFECTIVE to give anonymously? I can’t imagine how.

If you have a charitable cause that is supported by "Anonymous" and a cause supported by all of your peers, which cause is more likely to attract your attention? If you look at what encourages so many people to give in Seattle, it is because they see other high-profile donors, including Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Scott Oki and Paul Allen, engaged in giving. They also recruited other major donors, which is very hard to do if you give anonymously.

Here’s a paragraph from an email I got from Bill Gates about this:

    "Third and most important I think is that a few people - Scott Oki (ex-Microsoft) and Jeff Brotman (Costco) decided they were personally going to STRONGLY encourage people who been successful to give to United Way at a high level. I hear they have signed up almost 40 people at the Emerald Level which I think is $1M over 5 years. This is unprecedented and fantastic. When people see that Bezos, Allen, Glaser, etc. are all giving it draws more people in. Scott and Jeff make sure to get help from all the givers to get more givers."

Here’s another email I got on this topic:

    "I think that because you gave and identified yourself, it prompted others to give who knew you and wanted to help out. Maybe in some situations it might be better to donate anonymously, but I’ve always thought it strange when I read anonymous on an invitation with a donor sponsor list. I interpret it like they’re ashamed to identify themselves, not that they seek to avoid publicity, because this is GOOD publicity and it also sets an example. Go ahead and identify yourself, as long as it’s charitable giving."

I recently received an email that took me to task for being "showy" by allowing Worth Magazine to profile the philanthropic efforts that Michele and I engage in. Here is part of my response:

    "We are focused on results and I've never seen a superior outcome by giving anonymously. Had I been anonymous, you never would have seen the article in Worth Magazine.

    "On the Kirsch Foundation web site, we list each organization we donate to, and we explain why the donation was important so that others might be inspired to donate to the same cause(s).

    "Further, it would be impossible to support the medical researchers we've sponsored with an anonymous grant program. I know of no one who has been able to do that. More importantly, I know of no anonymous giver who gives more effectively than non-anonymous givers."

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And another:

    "I agree 100%, Steve. Having role models is important, particularly in a ‘young’ community of giving. As well, people need to specify the amount they give, since it gives others a ‘scale’ factor that they can relate to their own personal situation. I don’t see it as a matter of ‘bragging’ but I know too many people who simply didn’t fathom what a ‘significant gift’ was due to their naiveté."

Here’s an excerpt from an article by Patricia O'Toole from The New York Times, Nov 17, 1999:

    "Although anonymous giving may be good for the soul, a new breed of philanthropists argues that it may be shortsighted. Silicon Valley has convinced itself that hoopla over big gifts stimulates more big gifts; that there is, in effect, no Rockefeller effect and that the old Lone Ranger is no match for the new Connecting Ranger. The latest evidence for this hypothesis: last spring, when 102 local nonprofit agencies were about to lose funding because the United Way’s annual drive had fallen $11 million short, Steve Kirsch, an Internet entrepreneur and a founder of Infoseek, stepped in with $1 million.

    ‘Steve’s example quickly brought in $14.6 million,’ said Peter Hero, the president of the Community Foundation Silicon Valley in San Jose, Calif. ‘Almost all the big giving done here is done publicly, and we know from our research that it’s not about self-aggrandizement. It’s about spreading the word in the hope that others will join in supporting the cause.’

New paradigm? Nah. Andrew Carnegie, the 19th-century prototype of the American tycoon philanthropist, believed in giving with a flourish of trumpets and blew his own incessantly to rouse the rich to righteousness.

While there may be some donor benefits from giving anonymously, I can’t think of any benefit to the cause that is being supported. Can you?

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