The Fundraising Executive

RAMBAM’S LADDER – PART 2: Three More Takeaways for Modern-Day Fundraisers

By Eddie Thompson | April 1, 2016 | Donor Communications
Maimon's "Guide for the Perplexed"

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon’s “Guide for the Perplexed”

Moses ben Maimon (“Rambam” for short), a 12th century rabbi, outlined eight types of alms giving and arranged them in kind or a “hierarchy of righteous giving” (see Part One).

Julie Salamon writes for the culture section for the New York Times. Her book entitled Rambam’s Ladder chronicles her philanthropic journey from nonprofit involvement, through repeated encounters with a particular homeless man, to a fundraiser who demonstrated equal access to the worlds of both the rich and poor—all in the context of Rambam’s hierarchy of giving.

I’m continuing on this topic with a few more applications for twenty-first century fundraisers.

The first two degrees, or rungs on the ladder, described those who give reluctantly or give disproportionally to the needs of the community. The application for modern-day fundraisers in Part One contains examples and suggestions of how to appeal to reluctant givers.

Rambam’s next degrees, particularly three and four, describe means of giving that (to some extent) shield the poor from the shame of being forced to beg.

Degree #3 — He who hands alms to the poor after being asked.

Degree #4 — He who hands alms to the poor before he has to ask, thus sparing him the shame of begging.

Degree #5 — He who gives alms to a poor man who knows the giver but the giver does not know who is receiving his gift. The giver is like the Sages who used to throw money over their shoulders for the poor to collect. Thus, the humiliation of the poor would not be exposed.

Takeaway for Fundraisers: Most career fundraisers have never been in such a desperate need that they’ve had to beg. That doesn’t mean they won’t have to deal with the embarrassment of begging, even when it’s appealing to potential donors on behalf of others.


Rambam’s Eight Degrees of Alms Giving

People come to nonprofit work from various backgrounds. Some more easily identify with an affluent donor’s desire and capacity to give because that’s the world in which they grew up. Others can more easily identify with sick kids, needy students, the poor, and the disenfranchised. That’s where they came from. And so, part of their reluctance, discomfort, or “shame of asking” is that it’s simply hard for them to imagine people so freely giving away large sums of money.

I remember the early days of my fundraising career. I was right out of graduate school with barely two dimes to rub together in my pocket. I drove to my donor appointments in a 1952 pickup truck with a piece of plywood covering the big hole in the floorboard. Not hard to see which side of the economic spectrum I identified with. In a development staff meeting one morning, I was assigned to make an appeal to a gentleman for a $10,000 gift. I remember asking, “Do you think he has $10,000 to give?” The guy next to me laughed and said, “Eddie, you have to understand, not everyone is poor like us.”

If you’re going to be highly successful as a fundraiser, you’re going to have to learn to operate comfortably in both worlds. Though this is definitely something you can learn, it’s definitely not something you can fake by dressing up or down. Each group, the wealthy and the poor, is like an exclusive club. Members can quickly tell whether or not you’re one of them.

The good news for young fundraisers from modest backgrounds is that identifying with affluent donors is an acquired skill. Over the years I went to thousands of appointments with both relatively affluent and extremely wealthy donors. Eventually, I did grow into my job and became more at ease with who I was and with who they were. Conversations and appeals, whether it was for $100 or $100,000, became much less stressful.

If you’re going to be highly successful as a fundraiser, you’re going to have to learn to operate comfortably in both worlds.

The bad news is that more and more organizations are depending heavily on direct mail, social media, and broadcast emails for donor communications. If you’re not already in that affluent club or you’re not regularly meeting and conversing with affluent donors, it is unlikely you will acquire the skill or the access. It’s definitely learned by doing.

The anonymity of giving in the 6th and 7th rung on Rambam’s Ladder points to an underlying reality in the relationship between donors and those in need. The unknown giver helping the unknown person in need demonstrates the extent to which both live in very separate worlds that rarely touch each other.

Degree #6 — He who gives alms anonymously to someone he knows.

Degree #7 — He who gives alms to someone he doesn’t know and does so anonymously.

Professional fundraisers are philanthropic agents, connecting those in need with those needing to give. Some organizations lend themselves easily to donor involvement in such a way that puts benefactors in direct contact with the beneficiaries—those who give connect with those in need. For other organizations, the connections are more challenging, and their fundraisers need to figure out how to get donors personally involved with the people the organization serves.

Takeaway for Fundraisers: Tours are a great way to cut down the separation between potential donors, patients, and the overall mission of a hospital. I’ve been on a lot of tours, and some are far better and more creative than others. Some tours have motivated (even compelled) me to get involved; others did not.

Surveys consistently show that the best and most consistent donors are those who are in some way involved with the organization. However, it’s not enough to believe in the organization or simply like the organization. And often it’s not enough to just take a tour. It’s usually a multi-step process. Touring needs to lead to volunteering at some level, i.e., getting donors directly connected with those the organization serves.


Degree # 8 — The highest degree of alms giving is to uphold the hands of the poor by giving him a loan, entering into a partnership with him, or finding work for him so that he would no longer need to beg—thus removing his shame.

I posted a blog a few years ago illustrating the difference between strategic and tactical giving. In The Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge, a little Dutch boy, Hans Brinker, discovers a hole in the dike, inserts his finger, and saves the town. A TACTICAL GIFT would be a campaign to fund little Dutch boys to stand guard over hundreds of dikes in Holland with fingers at the ready. A STRATEGIC GIFT would be a comprehensive water management project that solves the problem threatening all the villages of Holland.

What really gets (strategic donors’) attention, what really makes them lean into the conversation is a well thought-out plan for teaching people to fish.

Strategic initiatives are typically much more expensive and take longer to accomplish, but they solve systemic problems and thus are more economical in the long-run. It’s much easier to make a tactical gift to a hungry man by simply giving him a fish. A strategic gift (teaching him to fish) requires a much greater commitment.

Takeaway for Fundraisers: Fundraisers often miss opportunities with reluctant givers by the way they shape their appeals (see Rambam’s Ladder-Part One). In the same way, they sometimes miss the mark with strategic donors because fundraisers are asking the wrong questions—i.e., making the wrong appeals. For example, I know strategic donors who will politely listen to appeals to meet tactical needs. They’ll often respond by providing a few fish from their discretionary giving fund. But what really gets their attention, what really makes them lean into the conversation is a well thought-out plan for teaching people to fish.

Strategic donors, especially those with very high giving capacity, tend to see themselves as “hyper-agents” because of their unique ability to affect systemic change (see Wealth and Hyper-Agency). That’s how they think, and those are the projects for which they reserve their major gifts.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.
Founder and CEO, Thompson & Associates

Copyright 2016, R. Edward Thompson