The right to remain silent

One of the worst-kept secrets in Atlanta during the 1960s and ’70s was the identity of the anonymous donor who always stepped up with huge contributions when the city needed a new performing arts center or a multi-acre downtown park on the most expensive real estate in the Southeast.

This charitable soul truly believed what a Georgia preacher wrote about blessings bestowed on any land that produces a rich man with “an open hand and a closed mouth.” Still, just about everybody in town knew that the only person whose checkbook could handle such big-ticket items was Coca-Cola magnate Robert Winship Woodruff.

After decades of nonsecretive secrecy, Woodruff in 1979 squandered his right to remain silent when he and his brother, George, signed over 3 million shares of Coca-Cola stock to Emory University. The New York Times at the time described the required-to-be-public gift as the largest single contribution in the history of philanthropy. However, Woodruff still avoided uttering any word on the matter by skipping the university’s press conference.

People and institutions demand secrecy in their charitable giving for many reasons. According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, for example, only 5.3 percent give anonymously because of their religious or philosophical beliefs, whereas 50.6 percent want to remain anonymous to minimize solicitations from other organizations. When there is publicity, representatives from charitable foundations have told us they will be besieged with requests for funding they do not have, often for the types of projects that they do not fund. Saying no makes good guys look like bad guys. If you only fund cancer research and someone proposes you provide money to buy a bus for the basketball team, listening politely and saying no still takes up a huge chunk of time.

Although not as large as the multiple $100 million-plus anonymous gifts some universities have reported since the 1979 Woodruff deal, Brenau during its 140-year history has benefitted from donors who want their largesse kept secret. Matt Thomas, the university’s vice president who oversees fundraising activities, says the size of the gift really does not impact donor requests for anonymity. In the $40 million ForeverGold initiative that is nearing completion, anonymous gifts include one for $500,000 that put the university over a major campaign goal, as well as small annual gifts earmarked for an annual scholarship from one individual whose name Thomas could not instantly recall. “But that’s OK,” Thomas jokes. “It’s supposed to be anonymous, right?”

Likewise, because of a complicated business arrangement, the university acquired from anonymous donors a collection of several hundred paintings, drawings, sketches and other pieces from artist Christopher Cobb, the grandson of Georgia-born baseball legend Ty Cobb.
Brenau’s most recent anonymous art donation, Luminary 830, the kinetic flame sculpture that graces the entrance to the campus on one of Gainesville’s best-trafficked thoroughfares, was more the Woodruff variety. The donors simply believed that it would have been personally unseemly for them to publicize their gift.

Several organizations have provided anonymous contributions to Brenau’s collaborative summer camp program for economically challenged children in Gainesville because they support multiple institutions and preferred to avoid explaining why they picked our effort over other worthwhile projects. The anonymous donor who seeded an endowed fund named for Brenau’s late CFO Wayne Dempsey had relationships with other universities and preferred to keep private that he had pledged a larger amount to Brenau.

Brenau, like other charitable organizations, loves to publicize gifts, particularly gifts from exemplary individuals or organizations that would inspire others to support the university. Donor publicity also celebrates broader validation of the university’s mission and accomplishments.

However, we want to celebrate the validation by anonymous donors, too – even if we can’t tell you the rest of the story.

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