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Anonymous?
Posted by Kevin Salwen on 03.03.2010Share

When we decided to start our family project, we told a few friends and family, then we stopped. Partly, we recognized that we weren't very good at telling our story and we were coming off as challenging to others, flaky or even boastful.

In the past, Joan and I often had discussed the question of whether donors should name buildings or programs after themselves. And in general, we didn't like the idea; after all, charity shouldn't be about the donor, right? It should be about helping those in society who are in need. The rest was just ego.

When we decided to work with The Hunger Project in Africa, we joked that Hannahville and Josephtown would become the most productive villages in Ghana. But it was very much a joke -- we had no intention of naming anything after ourselves or even talking much more about it. When friends would ask why we were selling our house, we would explain that we just didn't need a place as big as our old home now that we had stopped throwing large parties and we no longer had a nanny. Not untrue, just not the whole truth.

Then, the Today show asked to do a piece about our project and our family got together to discuss whether we wanted to go public. Really public -- like by the millions. CNN came soon after. Should we do those programs?

When I started researching the question of anonymous giving, I quickly came across a website called Giving Anonymously that refers to such gifts as "pure" giving. (An interesting side note, gifts through that site are not tax-deductible.)

Despite the purity argument, after several family discussions, we decided we would agree to talk about our project publicly if that publicity passed 3 tests: It had to help The Hunger Project by getting the organization's name out there. It had to help market the big old house, which still hadn't sold. And it had to help inspire others to think about their own lives and maybe start their own projects. (Here are the Today and CNN pieces from 2008, by the way.)

Not surprisingly, some of the response from the public accused us of being self-aggrandizing. This comment by "Curtis" on CNN's site, for instance:

I admire the attempt but I am disgusted by the self-congratulatory pat on the back these news reports give these "good-doers." Once you do something nice and then have the news report it, it is just plain sad. Try doing something nice and not telling anyone. Oh, but what would be the point in doing that? Everybody is so special. Look at me.

Now, with the book The Power of Half, we have obviously decided to put our personal family label on our actions and to go about as far from the anonymous giving track as we can.

Why? The answers are fairly simple, really.

First, there are the ones we originally had -- to inspire others and talk about The Hunger Project's great work. (Thankfully, the house finally sold, a mere 2+ years later.) Beyond that, though, by putting our family name on our gifts, others can see what we're doing. That provides transparency (the Salwens proudly support Atlanta Girls' School, Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, etc.) And it might encourage others to give to those same organizations because they see us doing it. I know we've been inspired by what the Weinmann family has done at the girls' school, for instance.

And not insignificantly, as my friend Tom Glenn (founder of the Glenn Institute for Philanthropy and Service Learning) told me the other day: Named giving "is a person giving to other people, not an unnamed entity doing some donation that can't be tracked. That makes it a more personal act and a more human act."

Tom's argument rings very true to us. I'd love to hear your thoughts on whether we're right or wrong on this.

I love your reasons for deciding to go public with your story. You did it for the right reasons and I really admire your family. I just found out about you and your book from reading through some older Nick Kristof articles. It is definitely a hard line - our family gives quite a bit and you don't want to share that with people, but if in sharing anything you can encourage others to do the same - it is so worth it. Your family is very inspiring.
Posted by Brynn at 6:42pm on 03.08.2010