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#292 Naming Names: A Philanthro-ethics Decision

August 22nd, 2017

Richard Marker

Two recent posts have led a number of readers to raise a question about the examples I gave. These readers are quite sure they know exactly to whom I am referring in each of them. [When you read B below you will see that they might be partially correct, but, even then, only partially.]

Why don’t I publicly identify my clients or the foundations and philanthropists to whom I refer? After all, it is quite customary for many bloggers and philanthropy advisory firms to name their clients, sometimes in a descriptive way and sometimes in a self-congratulatory way but always proudly. And some business advisors tell me that I am leaving money on the table by not showing that the foundation and philanthropy field takes us seriously and uses our advising, speaking, and teaching expertise.

Why am I so strict about this?

There is a simple answer, a more nuanced one, and a very practical one:

A. The simple answer is that I want to respect the confidentiality of all of my clients and students. Many of the matters discussed during my advisory work, or even in classes for philanthropists, are deeply personal, reflect very sensitive family or foundation issues, and are confided to me on the assumption that it goes no further. And that can apply both to those well-known and those not so well known.

If I were to publicly identify those clients who would have no problem being identified, it might make future clients or students reluctant to share, fearing that I would identify them as well. By being so absolute about it, it obviates the possibility of their wondering. [Obviously, if a potential client needs a reference, we are happy to connect them privately.]

B. The more nuanced answer is that I try hard not to give any clearly identifying information in any example I use or any case that I teach. In fact, almost every example I give is an amalgam of real people and real cases but rarely is so unique to a particular individual that there is only one possible reference. If one names names, it is far too easy for cases to be dismissed as listeners or readers try to unpack distinctive personality characteristics. I want the underlying philanthropy message to come across, not the quirks or voyeuristic enticements of bold face names. [This actually works: I once had to take a deep breath when I saw that a family I was largely using as an unnamed example in my presentation was sitting in the audience. Afterwards they approached me to tell me that they could really relate to that example and had a lot to learn from it. Go figure.]

C. The final reason I am so restrictive in naming names is a very practical one. In my line of work, almost everyone I meet assumes that I can help them get funding for a favorite project, or at least introduce them to “my clients” who would be thrilled to learn of their causes. Most of them are very valid and worthy, no doubt, but that isn’t my role and it isn’t why we are hired. Were we to become random advocates, we would lose our ability to advise and the confidence that we function fully independently. Just imagine how many more requests would be coming our way if we listed the funders and foundations around the world with which we have had a connection.

[Full disclosure, there are a very, very limited number of times I make direct reference to individuals or foundations in my teaching. When that happens, it is because the philanthropist or foundation has already gone public with that case and my role in it. Even then, that name will never appear in our website or anything I write.]

As stated above, many if not most of my colleagues in the field are less absolutist in the way they apply discretion and confidentiality. My view of the demands of philanthro-ethics is that I don’t name names. However, I do not want any reader to assume that I am suggesting that anyone who has a different standard is unethical, indiscreet, unprofessional, or otherwise compromising their roles with clients. They simply have a different “best practice” understanding.

For those of you who asked directly, and those who may have been wondering, I hope this clarification helps.

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