Anonymous donations are seen as the highest form of charity, eliminating the possibility that the donor may be seeking attention or have other selfish motives.
Then, there's the kind of anonymous giving that some Los Angeles donors have learned to perfect a best-of-both-worlds that bestows public anonymity while ensuring, privately at least, that the word gets around.
"Few donors are truly anonymous," said Richard Riordan, the candid former mayor and venture capitalist who has long run in philanthropic circles. "(They are) not out there telling everybody what they give if they make an anonymous donation. But the people that they want to know, know. That's the way it is with most anonymous donors."
Of course, the phenomenon has its practical side: Some donors truly want to give for giving's sake and don't mind if others know it but they don't want to be besieged by requests for donations, a common result of publicity.
That's not to say that truly anonymous donations are not made in Los Angeles or elsewhere, but the fact remains that less than 1 percent of donations are made anonymously.
In an era where wealthy donors are demanding more accountability from recipients of their money, staying anonymous is not often practical or effective. Then there is the desire by many donors for recognition.
Few donors who write million-dollar checks to UCLA Medical Center, the L.A. County Museum of Art or Walt Disney Concert Hall are looking for anonymity. If anything, getting a building named at a large institution is just another part of the competitive landscape of being a key player.
"Almost no one gives anonymously anymore and, worse than that, donations now have this aspect of eternal remembrance to them," said Pablo Eisenberg, an expert on philanthropy and a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.
There is no way to track anonymous donations given to the nation's 1.3 million tax-exempt charitable organizations, which range from soup kitchens to private foundations.
And while all non-profits are required to file electronic Form 990 statements with the Internal Revenue Service, non-profits are not required to publicly disclose a complete list of all their donors. Though the IRS gets the information, it is not readily accessible.
To get an idea of how few donations are anonymous consider the California Community Foundation, a collection of mostly smaller funds. Of the 1,300 donor-advised funds reported by the foundation in fiscal 2004-2005, only 28 were anonymous.
Misty de Lamare, the community foundation's spokeswoman, said the number of anonymous funds has stayed at about the same level for years. "We find that people want to give to whom they want to give and they can avoid getting all the solicitation letters, so it gives them a level of privacy and less hassle," she said.
Leah Bishop, an attorney at Loeb & Loeb LLP in Los Angeles, who specializes in trusts and estates, said anonymous donors typically fall into two camps those who are truly altruistic and want to remain anonymous, and those who simply don't want to be hit up for money from other charities.
"If you're rich and your name is well-known, charities will pound away at you year after year, and that's one reason to remain anonymous," she said.
Still, many lawyers discourage clients from making anonymous donations, which require confidentiality agreements and can increase legal fees. Even without such an agreement, charitable institutions are restricted from disclosing the name of a donor without their approval.
Experts on philanthropy say that anonymous donations are anathema to gatekeepers of wealth. Most high net worth individuals have their own private foundations with lawyers and wealth advisors who want to maximize the effect of a contribution.
"You don't hear of people giving away $50 million anonymously," said Cheryl Zoller Simon, president of Foundation Management in Beverly Hills, which advises wealthy individuals on charitable contributions. "Having a name on something makes the institution accountable. This is money you don't pay taxes on. You want to make a difference and you want to say that you got something out of it."
Simon said she's often surprised that executives at non-profit organizations think a wealthy donor will simply pull out their checkbook and write a check without asking for a budget or a purchase order.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, one of Simon's clients decided to buy 1,000 fishing boats and give them to local owners whose boats and lives had been destroyed by the storm. The boats cost $2,000 a piece, so Simon advised her client to stagger the payments to ensure the money actually went to the owners, not a local charity.
"We got a purchase order and sent half of the money to buy the boats and the other half when the boats were delivered," she said.
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