Billions of dollars are being devoted to vital causes across the world in almost complete silence. Those making a difference with donations are usually successful and creative people of intelligence and compassion whose opinions deserve to be heard.
But quiet philanthropists rarely discuss the who, what or—most importantly—why of their giving. If asked privately, they talk of not wanting any attention, preferring a low profile or even being embarrassed by their wealth. Some suggest that talking about oneself and personal giving is not part of their culture.
But such unassuming generosity is being challenged by the causes they support as well as by their fellow philanthropists. Those who want to add decibels to donations have good reasons for urging philanthropists to speak out.
A big gift that’s well publicized can have double the impact of one that’s made covertly. The recipient gets a boost of confidence. Thought leaders and decision makers, from governments to nonprofits, sit up and pay more attention—and, perhaps, match funds—to previously overlooked issues.
And finally, where one leads, others follow. When a philanthropist endorses a cause with support on a large scale, others follow suit, and give big.
By going public, philanthropists bring others into the sunlight, helping generate a tradition and expectation of generous philanthropy amongst their peers. Those keen to see more and better giving largely reject donor concerns about negative perceptions or unwanted attention. Instead, they note that publicized gifts can encourage awareness, understanding and empathy—and, ultimately, commitment by others.
They point to philanthropists like Hong Kong’s James Chen, who contests the claim that Asian cultures are among those requiring the silent approach. Rather, he notes that the Chinese are among the world’s biggest enthusiasts for sharing their lives through social media.
Perhaps the best evidence comes from the experience of the United States, where between those who give prominently—from Rockefeller and Ford to Gates and Buffet—and the millions that make up “the crowd,” the philanthropic voice is strong.
In recent years, countries that have cultivated and supported the voice of their philanthropists have reaped the reward of a strong and expanding philanthropic culture. It’s no surprise so many are waiting for more donors to speak up.