Here is a summary of some recent work by Mike Peacey and Michael Sanders:
New research that studied why people choose to make large donations to charity anonymously has found that it may act as a signal to other donors of the charity’s quality. The findings, published today, also show that anonymous gifts rather than public ones induce larger donations from subsequent donors.…the researchers indicate that the reason why a person may choose to show the amount they have donated but conceal their identity is because it may act as a signal informing others looking to donate of the charity’s quality and worthiness. Knowing this to be the case, a donor who wishes to see the charity succeed may intentionally choose to keep their identity private.
But why the anonymous donation serves as such a signal remains unexplained. Is it “this venture is so well-known I know my identity will be discovered anyway and then I will look all the more noble?” Or is it “this venture is so high quality I value it for intrinsic reasons and do not require the publicity of affiliation”?
I find this result not surprising:
The findings also reveal that early donations are more likely to be anonymous than later ones, particularly for the first to a fundraising page.
If an anonymous donor gives early, there is a feeling of having “birthed” something. Someone giving at the end may be more likely to expect a direct reputational benefit from the gift.
The paper itself is here, and do note that this result may be context-specific and it should not be taken to have any direct bearing on the more recent political disputes about anonymous donations. For the pointer I thank William Benzon.