Bruce DeBoskey of the DeBoskey Group.

Where Do You Stand on the Ladder of Giving?

Ancient Ladder of Giving Can Guide Modern Philanthropy

More than 800 years ago, Moses Maimonides, known by many as Rambam, a rabbi, physician and philosopher, described eight rungs on the ladder of charitable giving. Remarkably, his approach is still pertinent to contemporary thinking about philanthropy.

The first rung, at the bottom of the ladder, is reserved for donors who donate grudgingly – giving with the hand but not with the heart. These donors rarely act with a charitable spirit. Nonetheless, Rambam recognized that giving even with a closed heart is better than not giving at all.

The second rung up the ladder is for donors who give with an open heart, but at levels below their capabilities. (See “Determine Your True Giving Capacity”). In 2010, Americans donated an average of 2 percent to 3 percent of their net incomes to charitable causes, well below the 10 percent encouraged for tithing by many religions.

As people climb the ladder, the third rung is for those who give money cheerfully and in adequate amounts, but only after being asked. This is the rung on which many donors stand. In response to solicitations, they give generously and with an open heart. Without these donors, many charitable needs would go unmet.

The fourth rung is for donors who give before being asked. These donors identify community needs and address problems proactively. Many philanthropically minded businesses, foundations and families stand on this rung.

The next two rungs are less relevant today because the direct relationship between donors and recipients has been altered by the creation of nonprofit organizations that act as a buffer between them.

The seventh rung is for donors who give anonymously to unknown recipients. Rambam suggested that by donating anonymously, donors elevate their giving to a higher level of spirituality, eliminating the potential for recognition or praise as the motivation for giving, and reducing the likelihood of embarrassment or shame for the recipient. On the other hand, giving publicly can be an act of service itself by setting an example of generosity and inspiring others to follow suit.

The eighth and top rung of the ladder is reserved for those who give the gift of self-reliance — donations of money, loans, time or experience to help recipients lift themselves out of their unfortunate situation. Rather than reacting to adverse conditions (e.g., hunger or disease), donors on this rung look to solve the underlying causes (e.g., poverty or education).

Rambam seemed to understand the concept that “if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day; if you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime.”

Although the world is much different than when Rambam designed his ladder, his writing causes us to think about the nature of our giving and the ultimate impact it has on solving the pressing problems of our time. The essential questions raised by Rambam’s centuries-old model are:

  • With what spirit do we approach our giving?
  • What is our motivation for donating our time and money?
  • Should we give anonymously or can our giving be a source of inspiration for others?
  • How much of our money and time do we require for our own needs and how much can we share?
  • How do we proactively and strategically address community needs?
  • How can our philanthropy have the greatest impact and help lessen the disparities, injustices and challenges our world faces?

The answers to these questions form the foundation for philanthropic initiatives that are more gratifying and rewarding for the giver and help create real solutions to the problems we seek to solve. Rambam’s ladder is an inspiring metaphor to help us climb to a higher level of meaning, impact and joy with our philanthropy.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Post, September 18, 2011.

About Bruce DeBoskey

Bruce DeBoskey, J.D., is a Colorado-based philanthropic strategist working across the U.S. with The DeBoskey Group to help families, businesses and foundations design and implement thoughtful philanthropic strategies and actionable plans. He is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and workshops on philanthropy. More information at or @BDeBo.

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