This past Sunday, I was walking to my local diner to grab a 3 PM breakfast when I saw a small tree branch resting atop a neighbor’s car. In a quick act of neighborliness, I removed the branch from the car and threw it on the sidewalk.
Before you praise me, or demand that the federal government institute a National Tyler Day to honor my heroism, I must keep myself honest and note that this isn’t something I regularly do. I’m not on the lookout for ways I can help my neighbors, in fact, I’m usually knit into my own world of thoughts or reflection or mobile media consumption when I travel by foot around my town.
Nevertheless, this moment got me thinking about “positive anonymous acts,” the acts of kindness we do when no one is watching. My act was pedestrian, in the sense that it wasn’t profound (and also that I performed it on foot). It’s entirely possible I only saved my neighbor three seconds of inconvenience, or the wind would’ve blown the branch away and he or she would have never even noticed it.
A positive anonymous act differs from a random act of kindness, in that there is no direct interaction between the actor and benefactor. When I think of random acts of kindness, I think of someone picking up a dropped hat and returning it to a stranger, or helping an older woman cross the street, whereas a positive anonymous act has something of a “there’s an angel looking out for you” quality except instead of an angel its a regular ol human bean lending a hand to another human bean.
Parking meter fairies are practitioners of positive anonymous acts. Cleaning up random trash left on a table near your eating spot is a positive anonymous act. Leaving a penny face up on the ground so someone else can get some good luck is a positive anonymous act.
Positive anonymous acts are tricky because there’s no way I could praise someone for doing them; its very nature means I’ll have no clue it happened or who did it and vice versa. If someone else told me about a positive anonymous act, it kind of disqualifies them, unless they share it with me in confidence and not with the people they helped. I’m kind of disqualifying myself because of this very post, but I’m willing to do that since all I did in this instance was remove a stick from a car hood.
There is, however, a way we can gauge how many positive anonymous acts are happening in the world: looking at anonymous donations.
I conducted some, not-so-lazy research into Philantrophy.com‘s directory of $1 million+ gifts made by individuals to charitable institutions, which includes hospitals, museums, and colleges and universities. I filtered for the donor “anonymous” and found that between 2005 and 2015, there were 620 anonymous donations made for a total donation amount of $5,404,517,484, with the average donation equaling $8,716,963.
We’re talking about $5.4 billion in positive anonymous acts these past ten years.
Generous donors may remain anonymous for practical reasons, and they occasionally don’t remain anonymous forever, but there’s scientific evidence suggesting that anonymous donations have a more influential effect than public ones.
Enrico de Lazaro of Sci-News.com shared a study in which researchers at the University of Bristol’s Center for Market and Public Organization found that anonymous donations to the 2010 London Marathon outweighed public donations, and also prompted larger donations from subsequent donors:
“The Bristol scientists studied the anonymous gifts from 70,000 donations made through a website to fundraisers running in the 2010 London Marathon, the biggest single fundraising event in the world.
They found that anonymous donations made on behalf of runners in the London Marathon account for the majority of larger gifts than public ones. Furthermore, anonymous gifts rather than public ones induce larger donations from subsequent donors who give around four per cent more.”
So maybe you don’t have millions or thousands or hundreds or even singles to give away, but maybe you know you can secretly do something positive that’s more impactful than removing a stick from a car, and if that’s the case, then I encourage you to do it.