Time was that a gift of just a few million--or even less--could tie your name to an entire university or hospital. Nearly four centuries ago, all that Massachusetts minister John Harvard had to give away was his books and, voila, the new university rewarded him with its name.

Now donations worth several times that amount can fetch a name on a building or program, but not the whole campus or medical center. And in a few cases, huge gifts won't even get a mention on the dedication program--but only because the benefactor wants it that way.

In today's world, donors must console themselves with business or engineering schools or medical wings that get renamed in return for, at the biggest institutions, gifts of eight figures or more. Often the schools acquire an actual new structure that wouldn't exist but for the grant.

A recent example of such largess is Henry Samueli, a founder of Broadcom Corp. who last month gave $30 million and $20 million, respectively, to the engineering schools at the University of California at Los Angeles and UC-Irvine. When Broadcom went public in 1998 and overnight turned Samueli into a multibillionaire, he was on leave from a teaching post at UCLA.

"It's payback time," Samueli, also a former UCLA student, explained in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. But payback for the new philanthropist as well--both engineering schools are to be named for him.

Up the California coast at Stanford, Jim Clark, who founded Netscape, last fall pumped $150 million into the school where he once taught. The money is for development of the James H. Clark Center for Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. About 400 scientists and technicians and 50 regular faculty members will work on projects designed to exploit and combine research in genetics, cellular biology and computing.

Clark gets a center for $150 million, while 19th-century railroad baron Leland Stanford was able to name the entire university to memorialize his late son for a fraction of that, albeit in 1800s dollars.

For some donors, however, private giving without the public glory seems to be enough reward. At Cornell University, an anonymous giver has pledged $100 million toward an undergraduate program that will reinforce the learning experience outside the classroom. And in December, nameless philanthropy took a new twist, as an unidentified person took out full-page ads in Boston's daily newspapers urging the wealthy to give.

Why hide?

"In many ways, we all do it," said Paul G. Schervish, a professor at the Social Welfare Research Institute at Boston College who has studied anonymous giving. "I give to United Way . . . I give to my church. No one really knows it's me. It's important to think of anonymous giving as much more widespread than we give credit for."

Yet a 1991 survey found that only 1 percent of money contributed is anonymous; the rate was 1.3 percent for gifts of $1 million or more.

After interviews with 130 millionaires to explore the motivations behind anonymity, Schervish found myriad reasons for nondisclosure. They include a desire to hide the fact that one is wealthy--to shield oneself from subsequent requests, to protect one's family and simply to maintain privacy--to increase the effect of the gift by not making the recipient feel the donor is "hovering"; ethical concerns that the giver becomes more important than the gift; and protecting the recipient from embarrassment.

On the other hand, Schervish writes in a recent paper, "The Case for and Against Anonymous Giving," nondisclosure isn't necessarily all to the good. For one, it allows the donor to skirt scrutiny and accountability.

"I started giving . . . anonymously," says one heir whom Schervish interviewed. "And then I thought, 'Well, that's kind of ridiculous. I might as well stand up and announce what I am for.' " (Schervish used pseudonyms for those quoted in his paper.)

Being public also allows "more latitude for direct participation" in a funded project, Schervish says. Other pro-disclosure reasons include setting an example for others to be generous, and, in contrast to the "hovering" concern, ensuring that the gifts bear fruit.

MONITORING EXEMPTIONS: A report by an independent research organization says New Orleans area officials have been lax in monitoring charitable and nonprofit groups that benefit from property tax exemptions.

With 65 percent of Orleans Parish property exempt from taxes, the Bureau of Governmental Research says "no one systematically monitors whether the exempt property owners deserve the exemptions they enjoy." The report may have ramifications beyond Louisiana; tax-exempt organizations across the country have been increasingly under scrutiny about their status.

While stressing that the vast majority of nonprofits are above-board, the report says "Louisiana more indulgently allows nonprofits to use their exempt property for nonexempt purposes." Exemptions should be based on compensation for public services actually performed, the report urges.

The problem with current law, according to BGR, is that eligibility for exemption is based on who owns the property, not whether it is actually used for charitable purposes.

"Property tax exemptions grant a select group access to free or discounted public services," BGR says. "Nonexempt taxpayers foot the bill. . . . Exemptions should only be made available to organizations providing services that lessen the burden of government, i.e., services that government would otherwise provide."

Kent Allen's e-mail address is allenk@washpost.com