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Millions of Americans donate anonymously

WARRENTON, Va.—Five days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, a Virginia man showed up in Biloxi, Miss., with a truckload of generators, chain saws and gasoline that he gave to residents who'd been left powerless. Then he gave the truck to Biloxi's devastated fire department.

"I never did see him," Fire Chief Dave Roberts said.

The donor told Roberts' deputy only that his auto dealership had had a good year and that he wanted to pass along his good fortune. The sticker price on the big new Chevy 4500 Duramax diesel was $53,000.

Donor Andy Budd, traced to Country Chevrolet in Warrenton with the help of the truck's ownership transfer records, said he preferred to give anonymously. "When there's publicity," he said, "some people figure that the only reason you did it was to sell a car."

Anonymous donors such as Budd, 47, who expect nothing in return are the most blessed of givers, according to most of the world's religions, and a year of natural disasters has brought out millions of them. Indeed, by theology's highest standard for giving, in which neither donor nor recipient knows the other, every Red Cross contributor, every Salvation Army pot-feeder, every blood donor is among this elite.

Among big donors, on the other hand, anonymity is rare. A survey of professional fund-raisers by Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy found that only about 1 percent of gifts of $1 million or more were anonymous. That included many donors who balked at publicity but whose names were known to fundraisers or others at the institutions they helped.

Nonetheless, recent U.S. philanthropic history includes at least one billionaire, Charles Feeney, who contributed $2.5 billion to various causes and kept his generosity secret for 20 years.

Feeney, who had founded a worldwide chain of duty-free shops, sought anonymity out of a basic unpretentiousness, said his lawyer, Harvey Dale. "He believed that the great work in the nonprofit sector was not done by the people who provided the money, but by the people who did the good works," Dale said of his reclusive client, who is now in his 70s.

A second anonymous billionaire is staffing up in New York City, according to people who have been recruited or consulted by the philanthropist's still-secret new foundation. Its benefactor intends to spend $50 million a year, mainly on improving health in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Harvard University's Lincoln Chen, an international health expert who's been briefed on the plan.

The new foundation intends to incorporate offshore and donate through other entities, including offshore ones. Dale, who devised that strategy for Feeney, declined to comment when he was asked whether he was advising this shy billionaire, too. Neither Dale nor Chen would name the new foundation. Other recruits couldn't, because their only contact had been with an executive search firm.

It's easy to understand the appeal of anonymous giving for some rich donors.

Take the case of Harold McMaster, an inventor of glass tempering and solar energy devices, and his wife, Helen. The couple lived modestly in Perrysburg, Ohio, while giving hefty grants anonymously in the `80s to higher education in their state.

After a few years, fundraisers persuaded them that going public would motivate other potential donors. And that turned their world upside down, Helen McMaster recalled.

"People would ask us out to dinner and we'd always wonder whether they wanted something," she said.

"We had people who said they knew us write that their kids should be helped through school, and we didn't know them.

In another case, "We got a letter from the zoo in Indianapolis asking for a million dollars, and we'd never even been to the zoo."

Giving became fun again only after they hired a professional screener, McMaster said. Indeed, most big anonymous donors in the Indiana study did so to avoid drawing hordes of fundraisers.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam offer another reason for anonymity: All deem giving without recognition an exalted form of charity.

"If you declare your charities, they are still good," the Quran says in Chapter 2, Verse 271. "But if you keep them anonymous, and give them to the poor, it is better for you and remits more of your sins. God is fully cognizant of everything you do."

According to rules for charity written by the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, charity was better when "the righteous gave secretly and the good poor drew sustenance anonymously."

For Christians, Jesus' advice in the Sermon on the Mount is the key: "When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men."

American donors followed that advice more often in the 19th century, according to Indiana's Dwight Burlingame, the assistant director of the philanthropy center, but for a different reason. Anonymity, he said, enabled people of means and standing to contribute to controversial causes, such as the abolition of slavery, mental health, immigrant aid, sex education or ending white slavery.

Massive giving by Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and other industrial titans national and local—virtually all by name to enhance their reputations—dominated U.S. giving after the turn of the century.

Burlingame, who helped devise Indiana's study, said anonymous giving probably had declined further among big donors since 1991, when the survey was conducted.

These days, he said, successful fundraisers press donors harder to give by name because named donors often persuade others to give. For their part, fundraisers have found that "naming opportunities" are a powerful incentive for recognition-seeking donors.

Auto dealer Budd, who was embarrassed when a reporter surprised him at his showroom, offered a unique story.

Frustrated by red tape when he tried to deliver aid to Sept. 11 victims, Budd said, he decided that handing out chain saws and generators directly to Katrina's victims was the only way to go. So he and a volunteer from his dealership, in a second truck carrying 200 gallons of gasoline, drove 17 hours nonstop to give away gear donated by Budd, a John Deere dealer and some local Rotary Club allies.

Budd's wife, Holly, asked whether they needed to go immediately.

"The quicker we get help to people, the better it'll be," Budd said.

Some Biloxi recipients were suspicious at first, he found, when all he asked was that they pass along the gear to another family in need once they finished with it.

"According to the news, you need some help," Budd said he told them, "so here it is."

Giving away the truck, he said, came to him after he heard on the radio on the way down that Biloxi had lost lots of firefighting equipment and he saw how flattened the city was.

A brass plaque sits on the corner of his desk. A former boss gave it to him as a hint, Budd said, when he was 28, running the biggest Ford dealership in Virginia, and considerably less modest.

It reads: "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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