Anonymous Giving: Acts of Charity That Have No Name

Times Staff Writer

It is part of a religious tradition from Matthew to Maimonides: Give to those in need.

Further, Jesus’ Apostle Matthew in the Bible and Maimonides, a 12th-Century Jewish rabbi and philosopher, exhort both Christians and Jews to maintain the dignity of the poor, especially by remaining anonymous.

When thou doest alms, writes Matthew (6:3), let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.


They come from all walks of life, from varying economic brackets and social settings. They believe in giving, in helping their fellow humanity. Their donations may be several million dollars for medical research--or a sack of groceries delivered to a church pantry for the poor.

In addition to a belief in doing charity, they have another thing in common: They wish to remain anonymous.

Granted that large donors often wind up with their names on a university edifice or a research lab--but not always and frequently against their wishes. In addition to such expansive philanthropy by, on the large part, only a few people, thousands of others contribute anonymously to a myriad of organized and personal charities, if in lesser amounts.

‘Fascinating’ Anonymous Donors

Jill Halverson, director of the Downtown Women’s Center, relies on support from a spectrum of donors, including anonymous ones that she describes as “fascinating.”

“There is one who sends a money order every other month,” Halverson said. “There is a Bible quotation on it, just the chapter and verse, instead of a name, and that’s all, something about feeding the hungry. I know the motivation but not the name.

“There is an older man named Sid--that’s all I know. He comes in once a month with $100 in cash. He stays 10 or 15 minutes and visits. No last name, and he will not talk about himself at all. I’d guess he is in his 70s, simply dressed, but neatly. He’ll just appear, then be gone. He does not live on Skid Row; he comes by bus. He comes out of nowhere and goes back to nowhere.

“I think he gives money other places, too. He’ll talk about the beauty of the universe, but no thank-yous. I would try to thank him and he would say, ‘I’m trying to say “Thank you” to you.’ ”

Another donor, an 89-year-old woman, is known to Halverson but not to the woman’s beneficiaries.

Her Own Reasons

“She was impressed by young people who do volunteer work at the Downtown Women’s Center, that there are young who would want to be with old and depressed people,” Halverson said. “She has provided support to two young men who volunteer at the center. She just says, ‘I have my own reasons for wanting to be anonymous.’ ”

At the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica, Warren Bowman, a deacon who volunteers as a receptionist to help distribute aid to the needy, said that much of its contributions are anonymous in the sense that church members contribute sacks of groceries and “experienced clothing"--a far nicer term than “used.”

Father James Mott OSA, pastor of Our Mother of Good Counsel Church in the Los Feliz area, cited a woman who has insisted on anonymity in donating a television set, refrigerator and money to a poor family.

“We also have a family that adopts a poor family at Christmas,” Mott said. “The donors find out how old the children are and their clothing sizes, then give gifts, clothes and the Christmas dinner. They do it as charity and also as a way of teaching their children.”

The Rev. Richard C. Hall, director of the Episcopal-sponsored St. Barnabas Senior Center in the MacArthur Park area, twice a year receives checks in the amount of $10,000 from an unknown source.

“The checks come from an unknown entity,” Hall said. “I don’t know if it is an individual or a corporation. The donation is administered by a bank as trustee, and the only way of thanking the donor is by writing a letter to the bank.

“In other instances I know who the giver is but I am requested not to acknowledge the donation.

“I guess the motivation is simply that it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

For the Salvation Army, anonymous giving is often similar, if on a larger scope, especially through its Christmastime Adopt a Family program.

The program is confidential and involves companies, families and individuals who provide a Christmas for families that remain anonymous, with the Salvation Army coordinating needs and acting as intermediary to forestall identification of either giver or receiver.

“They (donors) shop for toys for the children, gifts, food, a Christmas tree and decorations,” said Bettie Blake, social services supervisor and Christmas coordinator for 15 years.

“Contributors call in, and I give them minimal information about the family, such as how many children there are, their ages, their first names only. We coordinate the donations and I call in the recipient family. The parents or parent come in without the children so that the children will think the gifts are from them.”

Average Family

In all, the Salvation Army will help about 2,300 families during the Christmas season, said Bruce Glenn, public information manager. Using Bettie Blake’s estimate that an average family includes five children, Glenn projected the number of individuals to about 10,000.

Most of these will receive aid through the Salvation Army’s regular operations, much of which is financed through donations at its street-corner kettles--a check for $2,000 landed in a Pasadena kettle last week--and from mail contributions, Glenn said. Programs operate through its 43 Southern California centers; Blake’s central Adopt a Family project will provide assistance at all Los Angeles ZIP code areas, with emphasis on South Central and East Los Angeles. (Other Adopt a Family programs exist in outlying areas.)

The Adopt a Family program alone will serve about 600 families with contributions from 130 donors, including corporations and schools and those who give large amounts, as one man whose check for $5,000 will help 10 families. The cast and crew of the TV show “America” has donated the amount it would have spent on gifts for each other to Adopt a Family, Glenn said.

Emergency Cases

“Of the 2,000 to 2,300 families, 1,500 will be non-welfare families,” Blake said. “We qualify these non-welfare families as those with medical bills, health problems, the working poor that make just enough to make ends meet. We give them emergency grocery orders.

“We have families in which a father or mother has died or in which the father has been laid off his job and is waiting for his first unemployment check. Or perhaps it is an illegal alien who is unable to apply for welfare.

“In some way we are able to help just about everybody in need, even in a last-minute way. We just put a dinner together. It’s the old-fashioned Salvation Army thing: Give out grocery boxes and bags to anybody with a place to cook.

“Yes, it gets pretty hectic the closer we get to Christmas. There are so many poor people who do not know where to go, people with five children and no food at Christmastime. Those with no shelter go to Harbor Light, our facility on Skid Row. That’s where our Christmas dinner is held.”

Requests for help have increased this year, Blake said, adding that the number of people passing through Salvation Army shelters here is up 15%. Glenn said that demand for Christmas aid is 18% greater than last year while income is down 14% from 1984.

Ted Kanner, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation Council, and Jack Shakely, president of the California Community Foundation, are professionals in the field of charitable giving. Both spoke of the philosophy behind both anonymous and identified giving.

Kanner spoke first of the roots of anonymous philanthropy, which in Judaism go back to Maimonides’ eight levels of charity.

“Anonymous philanthropy in all directions is the highest form. Nobody knows the giver and nobody knows the receiver,” Kanner said. “According to Maimonides the highest level is that in which the gift makes self-sufficiency possible for the recipient--you can give a fish but it’s better to give a fish pole.

“The second kind of charity is . . . to choose your own charity, one that is not on everybody’s list. The third . . . involves self-protection, physical security. It is anonymous so it is not known how affluent I am that I become a potential target.”

Shakely said that most givers struggle to decide on a charity and that few try to aggrandize themselves through charity. He cited the verse from Matthew as continuing to be the reason many insist on anonymity.

“Another reason can be the close relationship with an organization and that the person is embarrassed with how much he or she is giving,” he said. “I know of one person at USC who gives thousands of dollars every year to the university and would be ashamed if USC knew that person was giving back half the earned salary.

“I know of one case in which the person had donated anonymous funds for so many years to the same agency that everybody in the agency knew who the anonymous donor was: Somebody who had been on the board for years and never made a contribution. Once I even heard the person say, in response to a special need, ‘Maybe I should give that out of my anonymous fund.’ ”

In addition to administering named grants, the California Community Foundation does the giving for “a couple of pretty well-known cases who want to stay anonymous,” Shakely said.

“For some, no matter how much they give people will say, ‘Is that all?’ That happened a year or so ago when Bruce Springsteen gave $10,000 to the United Steelworkers local in Pittsburgh for a food program for the unemployed and those having hard times and people said, ‘Well, he earns that in an hour.’ The real point is he gave.”

Lee Solters, agent for some of Hollywood’s most famous--and most anonymous--donors, spoke of his clients’ reasons for withholding their identities--as well as when and why they choose to lend their names to a cause.

Fear of Publicity

“They want to do it (give anonymously) because they want to do it,” Solters said. “They are afraid that people might misinterpret their giving as a publicity device. They want to have the satisfaction of not having their charity negated.

“Barbra Streisand gives a lot anonymously, but when she gave $500,000 to cardiology research at the UCLA School of Medicine she permitted her name to be used because she was convinced the publicity would create awareness of the research. As a result much more money was raised.

“Others will permit organizations to use their names on a committee--really as a marquee attraction.”

Solters also said that some clients wish to remain anonymous to avoid an overload of requests for contributions.

Kanner and Shakely also made a case for giving openly.

“Those who do not remain anonymous provide a role model for others,” Shakely said. “What we hope is that when a famous person makes a contribution, their neighbors and friends, their peers, decide to help out also. Often the donor’s name helps build credibility for a charity or institution or program.

“I have noticed that people tend to give more anonymously to (personal) charity rather than to philanthropy such as educational, medical or research programs. Many times, although the donor would like to remain anonymous, it is the nonprofit recipient agency that insists on naming the donor.

“You know what they call Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, don’t you. Plaque-istan.

Those who give openly do so for two reasons, Kanner said: Satisfaction and leadership opportunity.

Becoming a Role Model

“Leadership opportunity means that others become an emulator of you and you become a model,” Kanner said. “That’s the limitation of anonymous giving, that one of the great tools of organized public philanthropy is the example of others, the inspiration. An example is the challenge gift in which a donor’s contribution is matched by individual gifts. It works in a lot of situations.

“Getting gifts to any kind of capital project is easier than getting gifts to programs. Certain kinds are more attractive because they deal with a specific subject--ways of treating the ill, research. The problem with services is that the need is continuing.”

To those to whom she contributes through the Salvation Army’s Adopt a Family program, Dep. Sheriff Rita Hall remains anonymous. To the fellow officers she asks to join her, she is well known.

Last year at the Marina station Hall saw a TV program on Adopt a Family, posted a notice on the station bulletin board for help in aiding two families and got “an overwhelming response.” This year as a bailiff at the Criminal Courts building downtown she is finding the same enthusiasm.

She thinks it is good for the public image of law officers--but that is not her real reason for spearheading aid to two needy families.

“People have tunnel vision about law enforcement officers. They see us as giving tickets or rescuing people,” Hall said. “They don’t see the side that we care about people. Wherever I am, whatever unit, I will continue to keep doing this (charity).”

Hall said she has been active in charitable projects since she was a Girl Scout and has continued through her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, and the Greater Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church.

“I was raised that way,” she said. “I had a very happy childhood and I think everyone should have happy memories of childhood.”