Blog post

Donating anonymously: Should we be private or public about giving to charity?

6 min read
3 Jun 2021

The social norm of giving anonymously is impeding social progress. We would be better off as a society if we moved past this norm and instead gave publicly. After all, we are social creatures who rely on others for cues on what we ought to do.


The idea of doing good things in the service of "pure" altruism does seem admirable. If we see a chance to help others, we ought to be motivated to do it regardless of any praise we might get, right?

It might be nice to live in a world where everyone did good deeds solely for the sake of doing good, but in our world, people respond to many different incentives. We should not resist these incentives and instead seek to understand them so we can make meaningful progress towards solving the world’s most pressing problems at the speed they require.

Even if people give for partially selfish reasons (e.g., “virtue signalling” or bragging rights), their donations will still improve the world. In other words, all else equal, it’s better to have a big impact with mixed intentions than a small impact with purely altruistic intentions. And as it turns out, there are good reasons to believe that giving secretly might actually lower our overall impact.

What happens when we give to charity in secret?

An old Jewish folktale about a man named Yossele the Holy Miser captures the supposed virtuosity of anonymous giving.

Yossele was a very rich man who was hated for not doing anything to alleviate the suffering of those who lived in his community. The people even wanted God to punish him for his stinginess. But after Yossele died, it was discovered that he was secretly giving the local rabbi money on a weekly basis to distribute to the needy. It turns out Yossele was quite generous after all. The rabbi then gathered everyone in the synagogue to ask for Yossele's forgiveness, after which Yossele came to the rabbi in a vision and said, "I forgive everyone, because long ago I asked God to let me help people the way he does, without anyone knowing or giving thanks."

The story of Yossele the Holy Miser is an inspiring one. The people hated him. They even wanted God to punish him, and yet he still did what was right. Even after the people wronged him, he was kind enough to forgive them. That is admirable, indeed.

But what if Yossele had instead chosen to make his charitable giving public? Perhaps it would've been better for him to be open with his charity than to conceal his good deeds. What if he inspired other well-off people in the community to match his giving? It seems silly to think that his impact was somehow greater or more admirable simply because he hid his generosity.

Charity is for regular people, not just saints

In the real world, we cannot expect folks like Yossele to silently work on improving others’ lives while the rest of us sit idly. The thing that separates Yossele from the majority of us is that he is a remarkable character from a religious folktale centred around righteousness and other good virtues.

The same cannot (and should not) be expected of us regular folks; we’re people, not saints or paragons. But regular folks like us can make a substantial impact, especially when we work together. The world’s most pressing problems cannot afford to wait. Rather than gatekeeping charity by praising those with unrealistically pure motivations, we ought to create a culture that encourages (and celebrates) everyone who is altruistic, most of all when doing so directly inspires others to take action.

Western cultures seem to view signalling some successes as socially acceptable. If you are sceptical of this, I encourage you to scroll through your LinkedIn feed. Why is this behaviour considered taboo when charity is involved? Sharing an acceptance to a university or a prestigious job offer generally isn’t looked down upon. This makes sense — it’s great to celebrate your accomplishments and praise the people who helped get you there. But the same should apply to publicly declaring dedication to improving the world by giving to well-deserving and highly effective charities that have the potential to transform others’ lives.

There are some tremendous benefits to being public with our actions. Beyond the direct value of charity, it is important to think about the knock-on effects of encouraging others to be generous. Think about it this way: pledging to donate 10% of your income throughout your working life can positively impact the lives of many others. But you can substantially increase your contribution to the world just by inspiring one other person to join you in making the pledge!

Why we should spread good ideas

"Ideas cannot spread unless we share them.”

As Luke Freeman pointed out in his blog post How does change happen? The power of social proof in behaviour change & successful movement growth, we are social creatures who rely on others for cues on what we ought to do (a phenomenon known as "social proof"). Being an "early adopter," Freeman argues, can "normalise the path forward for others" to start dedicating time and money to solving the world's most pressing problems.

Again, I understand the natural urge to conceal our altruism. Telling others about our preferences, ideals, and passions can be scary, especially when it puts us at risk of seeming boastful or pretentious. But giving publicly might be needed in order to create a cascade of social change. Change will happen far too slowly — or never at all — if we keep quiet like Yossele. So let's speak up.

"The reality is we're all active agents in the world. We can all nudge the world towards the world that we want, or sit back and be nudged.” — Luke Freeman

There are pressing problems in the world that many of us would like to see solved, such as global poverty, the mistreatment of animals, and climate change, to name only a few. But the gap between the world we have and the world we want is difficult to bridge when we act in silence.

The societal norm of giving anonymously might severely restrict the amount that individuals choose to give. When charity is done in silence, donors might falsely assume they are giving more than the norm. In fact, according to TIME, research suggests that 72% of people give less than average, but 75% of people think they give more than average. If we were all more open about our giving, we may have a more accurate picture and be inspired to give more.

If you've ever worried about giving publicly, I hope I've given you some reasons to feel more comfortable with the idea. Let's start creating better social norms by publicly pledging 10% of our income to the world's most effective charities. Our impact will continue to increase as we spread the word and encourage others to do the same. Finally, we can look to change the norms around giving by publicly celebrating and encouraging all forms of altruism. If we do these things, perhaps one day the social norm that encouraged Yossele to give in silence will be a relic of the past.