For all that he achieved in his life in terms of his public image, Steve Jobs was famously not a public philanthropist, unlike his equally titanic tech rival, Microsoft’s former head Bill Gates.
Gates these days is almost as well known for the ongoing good work of the Gates Foundation as he is his private sector success. Jobs, by contrast, kept gates of secrecy around whatever philanthropic impulses he possessed. His giving track record remains shrouded after his passing from pancreatic cancer on Oct. 5, and while his will could shed some light on that, there’s yet no public knowledge of who has the will, when it will be disclosed, and whether charities will get anything.
Here’s what is certain: The death of Jobs has sparked conversation about the motivations and merits that surround anonymous giving. And for those who either eschew the spotlight or hold to a religious tradition that espouses anonymous donation, giving in secret sounds downright attractive.
“Giving is a very personal way of expressing one’s values,” says Kim Gertsman, associate director of development for the Population Council, an international, nonprofit that conducts biomedical, social science, and public health research. “Someone might donate to help fight a disease that impacts them personally — but they do not wish to publicly disclose that connection. And some wealthy individuals are concerned that recognition will translate into being flooded with requests.”
No doubt that highly public figures can do without any extra attention and entreaties from fundraising figures, or less-than-scrupulous people posing as such, says Jason Franklin, executive director of Bolder Giving, a website that shares stories of people pledging significant percentages of their assets to worthy causes.
Or it may involve a multitude of reasons that center around humility and privacy concerns — that “It’s not about me, it’s about the work,” Franklin says. “There’s also often an attractiveness to anonymity as an implied judgment against donors who seek significant recognition and attention for their giving — a feeling that “I’m better than person X because I don’t need my name on a building.”
In those cases, Franklin often asks givers to reconsider. “I try to point out that being public about your giving can be an act of service in and of itself,” he says. “When your name is attached to your gift, others will take notice — whether it be the world noticing a gift from Bill Gates, or, if you’re less famous, just your circle of friends and family taking notice. In being public, we lend whatever reputation and credibility we carry to the organizations we support, which can help raise their profile and inspire others to join us.”
In other instances, religious doctrine plays a strong role in maintaining anonymity. Jewish teaching and tradition holds that anonymous gifts — in which the donor and the recipient are unknown to each other – are at a higher level than gifts that are identified.
In Christian practice, that belief is stated by Jesus in Matthew 6:3: “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” It comes immediately before Jesus first recites the Lord’s Prayer, considered by many the holiest of Christian prayers.
“The way Jesus talks about it is very appropriate for any wealthy celebrity or businesspeople who are actors on the world stage: ‘Don’t make a performance out of doing something for someone else,’ ” says Cathleen Falsani, the web editor and director of new media for Sojourners.net. “If you do it for reasons that are altruistic, then you shouldn’t do it to glorify yourself.”
Falsani covered the charitable efforts of Justin Bieber in her new book “Belieber!: Faith, Fame and The Heart of Justin Bieber” (Worthy). Exploring the nexus of fame and charity in that book, she thinks that for some, the marching orders for anonymity are simple: “Because Jesus said so… You can argue about the meaning of various things Jesus said, but certain things are not debatable. It’s very clear what he’s saying in Matthew 6. There’s no wiggle room.”
As for the financial incentives that cover anonymous giving, experts say that any monetary incentives take a backseat role, if they play one at all. A giver who makes a sizable charitable contribution may choose to write it off — or perhaps not, thus making the paper trail of giving non-existent.
“If he chose to make charitable contributions and not take tax deductions for them, there would be no way the public would know it,” says Simon Singer, principal and founder of The Advisor Consulting Group in Encino, California. “It would not even show up on his income tax return.”
Phil Cubeta, who holds the Sallie B. and William B. Wallace Endowed Chair in Philanthropy at The American College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, maintains that in the end, the reasons rich givers chose to keep it under wraps may prove as wide, varied and intriguing as the lives they may lead as larger-than-life public persona.
“They may be giving to a controversial cause,” Cubeta says. “As one funder said to me, ‘I like to fly under the radar.’ And others give anonymously when they give a large amount for fear that they will become the target of thieves or even kidnappers.”