In today’s world, some philanthropists sign public pledges to give away their fortunes in their lifetimes. They are prodded to direct their philanthropy to social justice organizations or specifically for racial and gender equity and into greater transparency about their gifts. After acclaim for promising multi-million-dollar gifts, billionaire McKenzie Scott was on the receiving end of widespread criticism when she decided to be more discreet about her philanthropy going forward. She has since apologized, iterating that “my commitment to sharing information about my own giving has never wavered.”
Just as donors have every right to give their money–whether vast or modest–to whatever cause they choose, and by whatever means they choose, they also have the right to do so without putting their name on it. And, they owe no one an explanation.
Take the example of Booker T. Washington. Washington was a fierce crusader for the educational emancipation and economic upliftment of Black people in America. At a time when public dollars spent to educate Black children were a fraction of what was spent on white children, Washington marshaled private philanthropic investment from captains of industry–Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Julius Rosenwald–and the Black community to erect in the segregated south “the vanguard of education for African-American children.” As admirable as his accomplishments were, his own private giving reveals how anonymity and strategic giving advance racial equality and opportunity for all.
Born into slavery in 1856, Washington gained his freedom after the Civil War and then worked his way through college as a janitor. Later, he was hired to lead a newly founded technical-vocational Alabama school, the Tuskegee Institute. He believed that education and self-reliance were essential to meet the challenges of illiteracy, poverty, and social barriers for Blacks.
Washington favored accommodating segregation, believing that Blacks would earn equality over time. His seeming opposition to full citizenship and equal treatment were sharply criticized by some of his contemporaries such as W.E.B. DuBois. However, Washington’s self-help philosophy resonated with self-made industrialists, who built great fortunes and were committed to giving them away for the betterment of society.
Consequently, Washington successfully forged relationships with the nation’s most powerful and secured funding to build the Institute from the ground up. He later tapped into those relationships to build over 5,000 schoolhouses for Black children across the south, known as Rosenwald Schools. The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago estimated that Rosenwald Schools were responsible “for 30 percent of the sizable educational gains of Blacks during the 1910s and 1920s.”
Washington wasn’t just a savvy fundraiser; he was also a philanthropist. While he publicly supported the separate-but-equal doctrine in his famous Atlanta Exposition Address, he secretly funded a series of legal attacks on discriminatory laws and worked behind the scenes advance equality for Blacks.
Washington both raised money from wealthy white donors and devoted his own money as well as a great deal of time and influence to test cases that challenged the disenfranchisement of Blacks in several states.
Washington took special care to cover his tracks. He corresponded with his network of operatives using pseudonyms and employed codes to describe money he and others gave. For example, he convinced the leading Black rights organization of the time to launch a test case against a New Orleans Grandfather clause–a common voting restriction that permitted men to register to vote only if they could have voted in 1867 (before Blacks could vote) or descended from an 1867 voter. In contributions to the organization for the test case campaign, Washington was listed as “X. Y. Z.” and the gifts he marshaled from others as “per X. Y. Z.” It’s reported that he urged his colleagues never to use his name advising that keeping his participation secret would be more beneficial.
Giving quietly is just as relevant today as it was in Washington’s day. Americans who give anonymously choose to do so for various reasons, from religious belief to personal safety. Out of humility, they may want to keep attention focused on the recipients of gifts, or they may worry about backlash for supporting controversial causes.
While social justice philanthropy is more popular these days, supporting civil rights efforts carried dangerous consequences in Washington’s time and for decades afterward. But Washington would have no patience for cancel-culture mobs in philanthropy today that attempt to guilt donors into giving or bully dollars toward their favored causes. He wrote in his autobiography, “I have often heard persons condemned for not giving away money, who, to my own knowledge, were giving away thousands of dollars every year so quietly that the world knew nothing about it.” Washington’s words are timeless and timely.