) -- Henry Ford, Eli Lilly, John D. Rockefeller, J. Paul Getty,
are among the legendary business figures whose philanthropic largess has paid for museums, schools and health care initiatives around the globe. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon have similarly parlayed their fame to help chosen charities.
Not all affluent benefactors are as willing to put their names out there. Choosing whether to be an anonymous philanthropist can often go beyond mere modesty.
Bill and Melinda Gates at a 2006 press conference with Warren Buffett. All are well-known philanthropists, but financial advisers say most donors should consider giving anonymously.
A sizable donation can permanently alter the privacy of the donor and affect their everyday life, especially if the extent of their net worth has been guarded.
"If it is a particularly large gift, and you have your name on it, it can become publically available on the Internet," says Eric Meermann, a client service manager with
, a financial adviser in Scarsdale, N.Y., who has specializes in philanthropic issues. "Your local community may begin to look at you somewhat differently once they know that you have a very high net worth. If you add a whole wing to the hospital, everyone's going to know that you, your family and your heirs are going to have a significant amount of wealth. If you are giving away large amounts of money, you may not want a lot of people to know that. You may just be a more private person."
He compares the effect of such widespread knowledge to what often happens to lottery winners.
"Once that information is part of the public sphere, other charities will get it and you will also be getting many more phone calls and solicitations from everyone coming forward," he says. "You can draw a lot of negative attention. You see this with lottery winners, although maybe not in a charitable way. They spend lavishly, become well known in their community as having gained all this wealth in a very public way and a lot of them run into a lot of trouble."
Putting your name out there as a benefactor can also pose a security risk.
Gary Raphael, senior vice president of claims and risk consulting for ACE Private Risk Services, the high-net-worth personal insurance business of the
, points out that residential art thefts occur more frequently, albeit with less publicity, than museum heists.
As such, he always encourages art collectors to take care when sharing or donating pieces with a public venue.
"We always encourage them to loan pieces anonymously," he says. "Identifying where elements of a collection came from, either on the wall of the museum itself or with any materials produced for visitors about the collection, should downplay the connection to them."
"There are some folks who insist on their names being connected and that is actually part of the appeal to them, but we counsel them to the contrary," he adds. "It doesn't take much time on the computer today to understand where certain people have property located and getting actual street addresses. You can certainly take an educated guess as to where the piece, or others, might be when it is not traveling as part of an exhibit. That enhances the level of concern."
"It really comes down to common sense as to why you would or wouldn't," Meermann says of choosing to go public with a donation. "Why you would is that you want the recognition of something that will last for generations -- a building, a wing of a university or your name on an auditorium. Something like that will preserve your legacy beyond your death and preserve your family name for generations to come."
Many philanthropists go public with their heirs in mind.
"Future generations can look to that and say, 'This is my lineage, I should look to continue to make a good name for my family going forward,'" Meermann says. "Grandkids, great-grandkids and the like can look to this and have a legacy that ties them to being responsible members of the community."
There are other perks as well.
"If you are a well-known public figure or business person and you make a large gift that is publicly known, it builds your brand," Meerman says. "An example is Bill and Melinda Gates. Everyone knows them now for having this huge
and that can further help the cause and gather assets to fund it. It brings credibility. If the richest man in the world supports
a given cause, 'Well, he must have done his research and, rather than give money to someone else, I'll give it to this foundation.' It can actually get more dollars behind the cause more efficiently."
The pinnacle of name-attached charity is forming one's own foundation.
Meermann says the outlay needed to do this is often debated, with estimates ranging from $1 million to $10 million or more.
"All of the services that are required to run a foundation can add up to a significant cost disadvantage to running your money privately though a foundation, rather than building off the economies of scale of a large, established charity," he cautions. "The costs can really add up. If you are spending 2% to 3% of the assets just in annual costs, you have an investment hurdle. If you want to support lung cancer research, it is probably much more efficient, for example, to give those dollars to the
that has spread its costs over hundreds of millions of dollars in donations."
Nevertheless, running a foundation is something many pursue.
"A big reason for why people start private foundations is control," Meermann says. "They have a large amount of wealth they have accumulated over a long period of time and they may feel uncomfortable completely parting with the control of those assets. Being hands-on involved with the philanthropy is one of the big benefits. If you really want a focus or a purpose for your life, perhaps in retirement, if you are someone who was a high-level executive, you might find this is a good way to direct
your skills in a positive way to help people."
-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.
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