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Anonymity in Giving: A Case Study of 52times52.com

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I've known them for a long time. We've been friends for years. Shared laughs, went to each other's weddings, had play dates for our kids. We're close and I share that not simply for full disclosure, but because it colors my perspective on this most inspiring story. I'm not sure it really hit me until I found myself on the phone speaking with one of these old friends of mine about the yearlong charitable project that she and her husband began this past January.

The person on the other end of the phone line is a writer who has chosen to only be known as "Giver Girl." She and husband "Giver Boy" are the mysterious yet inspiring duo behind the website and project 52times52.com.

The premise is pretty straight forward. Starting this past January, they committed to donating $52 to a different charity, each of the 52 weeks of the year. But there are three very interesting twists. Being a writer and web designer, Giver Girl decided that she and her husband would write about each of the causes that they would be giving to and post these brief reflections on a website that she would design. The site helps to explain how the couple went about selecting each week's donation recipient, often with very moving posts. The very first post relates the story of how Giver Girl's father who was at one point in his life homeless, inspired her to donate to a Philadelphia homeless shelter. Another describes how Giver Boy's upbringing found him and his siblings enduring occasional seasons of not having enough food and how that led them to donate to Feeding America one of the nation's leading agencies working to end hunger. Over the last several months they've given to and written about an amazing range of causes and charities including a group combating gun violence, another fighting against animal cruelty, organizations to help support young writers, disaster relief after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the tornado in Missouri, and Hurricane Irene, as well as the Dream Foundation, Public Radio, Smile Train, Doctors Without Borders, and many more. Reading about how they are inspired by each other to give to certain organizations (a micro-lending agency that helps women in business -a post by Giver Boy, or the National Fatherhood Initiative - a post by Giver Girl) never crosses into being mushy, but remains touching and moving. This insight into the motivation behind giving is a rare window into the heart and mind of a giver.

But the reflections have another purpose (and here's the second twist). They are meant to move others to give as well. The project is interesting enough in just following Giver Girl and Giver Boy over the course of the 52 weeks. It's something akin to watching Amy Adams' character in Julie & Julia attempt to cook through Julia Child's cook book in a year. Viewers and followers just want to see if Giver Girl and Giver Boy will make it and who they'll give to along the way. But, rather than marching through the year while spectators watch, they have invited others to come along for the ride. Some are also giving $52 while others are giving $25 or $5.20 (all derivatives of $52). Fellow sojourners like "Amac3434", "AspieGiver", "Bonaventure", and "Bearcubhead", have been giving right along side of the project's founders.

And so this giving project with posts about each charity/cause and an invitation for others to give as well, boasts one other curve ball. As alluded to above, Giver Boy and Giver Girl have chosen to remain anonymous. But why?

Anonymity in giving is a complex notion -- one which philosophers, ethicists and theologians have wrestled with for centuries. Among the most referenced reflections on giving, is that of the 12th century Rabbi and philosopher, Maimonides. In the section of his Mishneh Torah dealing with Tzdakah, Maimonides expounds upon the notion that there are different "types" or more precisely in his case, levels, of giving. Among his eight levels of giving, the "lowest" form is giving, but giving reluctantly or unwillingly. The seventh is giving willingly, but in a way that is inadequate. The next highest level is giving adequately, yet only after being asked. The fifth level would be giving adequately before needing to be asked or urged. The higher levels of giving according to Maimonides incorporate anonymity.

The forth level is the notion of giving publicly to an anonymous recipient. An example of this might be giving to a large service agency without hiding your identity, yet not knowing the ultimate destination of your donation. The third highest form of giving entails the giver remaining anonymous while giving to a known recipient. The second highest form is that in which both the giver and the recipient are both anonymous. And the highest form is giving anonymously in such a way that the unknown recipient is no longer dependent upon others (for example providing a job for one so that they may provide for themselves.)

What is it about giving without one's identity being known that makes it ethically "higher" than the other ways of giving? Rabbinical friends of mine say that it is the element of humility and the lack of desire for praise, credit, or gratitude. This giving "without want of recognition" makes for a purer motivation, with the welfare of the recipient as the sole reason for the action.

I asked Giver Girl why do this anonymously? She is a writer who is a few steps beyond "up and coming" with a number of her writings being published in various popular local and national newspapers and magazines. Something like this could only help her career by displaying her writing ability, creativity, and compassion. And Giver Boy? He's a high school teacher, football coach and former stand out college player. This would be an amazing project to share with his school, his former teams and it too could in some interesting ways, further his career.

In addition, they are both well loved individuals with large circles around them. If they allowed themselves to be known, I imagine they could triple the number of "fellow givers" on the site bringing that many more donations to each week's charity of choice.

But they have chosen, for now -- for all these months -- to remain anonymous. And that to me is what makes this project most special.

There are those who hesitate at the thought of anonymous giving through a project like 52times52. When speaking with friends in the nonprofit and charitable world about this project, I heard one of three different responses. The first and by far the most frequent was one of admiration and inquiry about how they could get their organization picked to be one of their gift recipients. The second was a critique around the notion of one-time gifts. The argument is that while any and everything helps, if instead of spreading out that money to (in this case) 52 different causes, the givers focused on one charity or organization, they could make a deeper impact.

The third critique is that sometimes organizations prefer donors to not be anonymous or humble, but rather to benevolently boast about giving to them. Influential and admired people can influence others to also give. Charities giving donors the ability to share that they have given on Facebook or Twitter attests to the fact that giving can be contagious.

And yet, so much of giving, I think, has to do with clear discernment and calling. One should look within and find to what they are called and by what they are moved. I think this is what Giver Girl and Giver Boy have done. They could have chosen just one organization -- perhaps that first homeless shelter that they gave to. I'm sure that place would appreciate a $200 a month pledge. But these two givers, listened -- and felt moved to go on this journey and share their love with what will ultimately be 52 different groups. And it is not only financial gifts that they are giving. I and many others have received a gift far more valuable.

The brilliance of 52times52 is captured in a late summer entry in which they describe how while at lunch the two suddenly realize that it is Friday, the day they mail out and post their gifts. Spontaneously, they decide that that week's gift should be a $52 tip to the waitress who had been serving them in the restaurant. The post on the site says that after they wrote the tip on the credit card receipt, they decided to "run away without watching (their) waitress's expression as she opened the leather folio."

That's it right there. That's generosity. Giving in a sacrificial way with the intent of blessing others while seeking nothing in return -- not even recognition, gratitude, or praise. And this lesson is the biggest gift that Giver Boy and Giver Girl have sent out.

Humility is a virtue rarely modeled in our world. We are often attention starved, tweeting and posting and giving with a conscious or unconscious desire for affirmation. Doing something for our neighbors because there is a need and because we can serve is a beautiful challenge that I hope I can answer in the months and years to come.

There is good news on this front though. More and more we are hearing of efforts to increase anonymous giving and anonymous acts of kindness. Perhaps the strongest voices in this movement are the saints affiliated with Charity Focus and their affiliated sites. If you have not heard of the group you may know them from their benevolently mischievous Smile Cards that are left around the country. Two years ago, I returned to my office to find a plant given as a gift with a smile card along with it. I still don't know who gave it to me, but that plant brightened my day and still brings a smile to my face when I go to work.

So here's the challenge. I do encourage you to checkout 52times52.com and think about signing up to give alongside Giver Girl and Giver Boy for the duration of the year. It might be a hard time for you to give financially now though, so perhaps instead you can give of your time. Cut a neighbor's grass for them, take out their trash, shovel their snow. Or just go to a local playground or park and clean it up. Discern, like Giver Girl and Giver Boy, how you can use your gifts to make a difference in the lives of others.

I have deeply enjoyed watching them over the last 10 months. Perhaps at some point they will reveal themselves to friends, families and followers of the blog -- or maybe they won't. Either way, I admire and salute my friends for this long hidden race that they have run. For they have taught me a great lesson -- and they've helped a lot of folks along the way.

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