“Real generosity is doing something nice for someone who will never find out.”
– Frank A. Clark
Earlier this month, Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) announced that it had received an anonymous donation for $100 million. Representatives from the facility are calling it the biggest donation for mental health research in Canada’s history.
Officials for Canada’s largest mental health hospital say the gift will be used to support next-generation research with the goal of changing care at a fundamental level, aiming to develop cures for the psychiatric conditions that impact millions of Canadians.
While the size of the CAMH donation is certainly noteworthy, there’s nothing new about anonymous philanthropy. Wealthy people from Mark Cuban to late pop icons Prince and George Michael have given their money away in secret, while billionaire mogul Chuck Feeney earned the moniker the “James Bond of Philanthropy”.
Big Donations, Made in Secret
Indeed, the gift to CAMH is simply the latest big anonymous donation to grab headlines. In 2007, the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) was the recipient of a $150 million anonymous donation for its cancer centre. Yale received a $50 million gift anonymously in 2016 – its largest donation ever – for its humanities program and to create an endowment. In early 2017, The Royal Ottawa, a mental health clinic and research centre, got a $6 million gift from a secret donor that will be used to establish a ground-breaking new research program.
Anonymous altruism is a concept that goes back thousands of years. Judaism in particular places a high value on anonymous charity. “It’s understood that God is more positively inclined to people who give charity secretly,” Rabbi Martin Lockshin, chair of the Humanities Department at York University, told the Toronto Star. (The same article cites Proverbs 21:14, “A gift in secret subdues anger,” meaning that secret charity is one of the few good acts with the power to appease God’s wrath.)
Why People Give Anonymously
The reasons that people make their altruism anonymous varies. To continue the Judaism example, the idea is that an anonymous act of charity saves the recipient the embarrassment of looking his or her benefactor in the eye in their time of need. For others, particularly the super-wealthy, keeping their charity a secret can spare them from being inundated with appeals for more donations from other groups or causes.
Another reason that some donors keep their philanthropy a secret is – believe it or not – a fear of criticism. According to a study cited by LiveScience, there can be concern that an act of generosity will make others – specifically, others of similar means – look bad.
“It raises the stakes on what we might call a generosity arms race,” study co-author Pat Barclay, who studies co-operation at Ontario’s University of Guelph, told the site. “So one way to prevent that arms race would be to criticize or attack those who are escalating the generosity arms race.”
Secret Donors Go Public
That wasn’t a concern for Ottawa attorney David Sweanor, who anonymously donated more than $1 million to the Community Foundation of Ottawa over 15 years. He voluntarily dropped his veil of secrecy in 2015, in the hopes of inspiring others to give to charity. He told the Ottawa Citizen that while anonymity did indeed shield him from being flooded with requests from charities, “You don’t end up encouraging other people to do things.”
In the case of Edmonton businessman Eldon Foote, his philanthropy wasn’t made public until more than a decade after his death. Foote, who died of cancer in 2004, left $164 million of his fortune to the Edmonton Community Foundation when he passed away. It was the largest-ever donation to a community foundation in Canadian history, and it wasn’t public knowledge until December of 2016. Details of his record donation only came out amid a legal battle among his surviving family over his estate. Foote’s will left most of his $220 million US estate to the Edmonton Community Foundation and The Lord Mayor’s Charitable Fund in Melbourne, Australia (the country where Foote began making his fortune in multi-level marketing in the 1960s), and relatively small amounts – $100,000 each – to his children.
The Morality of Anonymous Charity
The $100 million donation to CAMH rightfully earned media attention, which is a positive thing, not just for being an incredible act of philanthropy, but also because it helps put a spotlight on the important issue of mental health. However, some question the correctness of anonymous giving on moral grounds, whether out of suspicion of a donor’s possible ulterior motives, or perceived conflict of interest.
While some people will likely remain skeptical of a philanthropist who chooses to remain anonymous, it’s difficult to argue that our society couldn’t use more acts of charity and selflessness. Regardless of motivation, the focus should be on helping people in need, rather than questioning the motives of those who choose to help them.
Justin Anderson | Staff Writer