The Fundraising Executive

RAMBAM’S LADDER: Twelfth Century Rabbi and Philosopher on the Ascending Ethics of Giving

By Eddie Thompson | March 1, 2016 | Donor Communications
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204) is typically referred to by his Greek name, “Maimonides” or by the nickname “Rambam,” a collection of the syllables from his full name and title. Maimonides saw more than his share of tragedy and triumph. His mother died shortly after his birth, his beloved brother was lost at sea, and he spent much of his life in dangerous exiles as a refuge. He eventually became a prolific writer, an esteemed commentator on the Torah, and the leader of the Jewish community in Cairo, Egypt. There, he also served as the chief physician of the Islamic Sultan and the royal family. Maimonides had a lot of experience on both ends of philanthropy—in both giving and receiving alms for the poor.

His Christian contemporary, Saint Francis of Assisi, had a simple approach to philanthropy, by which he divested himself of all his considerable possessions and took a vow of poverty. However, the ethics of giving were not that simple for Maimonides. The Rabbinical tradition of the Middle Ages was not unlike that of the first century in which righteousness was defined by an extensive set for laws to govern every situation. In that tradition, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon defined the “relative righteousness” of one’s charitable intent by the manner in which he gave alms to the poor.

Below is a summary of Rambam’s Ladder from The Code of Maimonides, Book 7, translated by Isaac Klein. Each succeeding rung on Rambam’s Ladder, beginning with Degree #1, was supposed to represent a more virtuous form of giving.

Degree # 1 — He who gives alms reluctantly with a frowning countenance

Degree # 2 — He who cheerfully gives alms to the poor but gives far less than what is appropriate.

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 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.

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. One should not contribute directly to the alms fund unless he knows the person in charge of the fund is trustworthy.

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 longer need to beg—thus removing his shame.

Neither Saint Francis’s passionate but simplistic approach to philanthropy nor the ethics of Rambam’s Ladder are an easy fit for modern donors. We live in a highly complex world of taxes, social programs, over a million 501c(3)s, and over 100,000 private foundations. Today, the means and motives of charitable giving are equally complex.

Neither Saint Francis’s passionate but simplistic approach to philanthropy nor the ethics of Rambam’s Ladder are an easy fit for modern donors.

I don’t know if Maimonides was trying to suggest that donors must work their way up his ladder rung by rung. I wouldn’t subscribe to that kind of analysis. Individuals and businesses give in many ways and for many reasons. As fundraisers, we serve as agents connecting benefactors with beneficiaries, not making judgments. We’re happy to receive on behalf of those we serve, whatever the motivation.

That being said, Maimonides lays one of the early foundation stones for what would eventually become modern philanthropy. Below are several things modern-day fundraisers can learn from Maimonides.

The first two rungs on Rambam’s Ladder describe reluctant and disproportional giving. Here’s an extreme example: There are donors who might contribute $1 million to the capital campaign for a new symphony center and $100,000 to historic preservation—nothing wrong with either of those projects. However, getting them to make a token gift of $25 a month to the alumni association or $500 for juvenile diabetes research can be like pulling teeth.

Think of it this way: Building a new symphony hall or restoring a historic building are projects that have a specific budget, blueprint, and completion date. It’s easy for donors to see the results and feel the impact of their giving.

On the other hand, the staggering cost of higher education and soaring levels of student debt are systemic problems with no solution in sight. Likewise, the nature of medical research is that most of the progress is in discovering which treatments won’t work. The timeline for a cure is unpredictable. And so, it’s hard to get traction with potential donors (who are reluctant to begin with) when it difficult for them to feel the immediates impact of the gift.

Those new to your cause (or new to charitable giving) need more than anything else to get infected with the joy of giving. Many of us learned that from our parents. Others were not so lucky. Sometimes the best way to introduce a new or reluctant donor to the joy of giving is with an appeal for a gift that has immediate impact on a specific individual. Instead of a gift for the university’s annual fund, consider appealing for a one-time gift to fund a single scholarship for a deserving but under-privileged student. Instead of a gift to juvenile diabetes research, solicit a gift to help a kid attend a weeklong camp with other diabetic kids. And be  sure that both follow up with a thank-you note to the new donor.

The fundraising objective for a reluctant donor is to introduce them to the joy of giving through a gift that has an immediate impact on a particular individual — known giver to known recipient.

Those new to your cause (or new to charitable giving) need more than anything else to get infected with the joy of giving.

I’ve been acquainted with an extremely wealthy gentleman for many years. I also know that he has a reputation among some fundraisers as being very cold, aloof…and reluctant. Several years ago he made a donation to an elementary school—a small gift by his standards but an extraordinary gift for the school. A third grade teacher at the school had all her students write thank-you letters to that donor. One of the third graders wrote, ”For an old bald man, you’re pretty cool!”

When you walk into that gentleman’s office today, among all his awards and commendations, the most expensively framed and prominently placed document on his wall contains the letter from that third grader. He points it out to new visitors, laughs at himself, and treats it as if it were his greatest reward.

The two lowest rungs of Rambam’s Ladder describe those who give reluctantly or give disproportionally to needs in the community. Highly effective fundraisers are often able to inspire giving even among the reluctant. I think we’re too quick to write off potential donors as those with no heart to give. Sometimes the bigger issue is that we haven’t made the right kind of appeal. In order to reach those individuals, fundraisers need to create short-term giving experiences that impact a particular individual or group. In other words, we first need to get them hooked on the joy of giving. After that, fundraising becomes a lot easier.

Next time, Rambam’s Ladder—Part 2: More Takeaways for Professional Fundraisers

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.
Founder / CEO
Thompson & Associates, LLC

Copyright 2016, R. Edward Thompson