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This morning someone forwarded me a story from the Weekly Standard, entitled “A Capitalist Revolt – against Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.” In the short piece Andrew Wilson describes the backlash among Fortune readers against the initiative by Buffet and Gates to get billionaires to publicly pledge to give away at least half of their wealth. That article inspired me to think again about the initiative and something that has been nagging at me since I first read about it some time ago.

For the student of philanthropy, Maimonides’ “Ladder of Charity” is something like medical students’ Hippocratic Oath: they are given it early in their education, and it provides a cornerstone of how they ought to think about their subject. Unfortunately, however, unlike Hippocrates’ ongoing (if waning) presence in the ethics of medicine, Maimonides seems to lose traction once fundraising school begins.

As a brief reminder, here is Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity from the American Institute of Philanthropy. “Each rung up represents a higher degree of virtue:

1. The lowest: Giving begrudgingly and making the recipient feel disgraced or embarrassed.

2. Giving cheerfully but giving too little.

3. Giving cheerfully and adequately but only after being asked.

4. Giving before being asked.

5. Giving when you do not know who is the individual benefiting, but the recipient knows your identity.

6. Giving when you know who is the individual benefiting, but the recipient does not know your identity.

7. Giving when neither the donor nor the recipient is aware of the other's identity.

8. The Highest: Giving money, a loan, your time or whatever else it takes to enable an individual to be self-reliant.”

In their defense, Buffett and Gates’s objective is to get billionaires onto the ladder, surely a noble task (and one not apparently much appreciated by the readers of Fortune).

My guess is most targets of their invitation are jumping on at rung “three”, but it will be hard for them to climb above that modest place. Moreover — and here is my greatest concern — the very public nature of the project, while surely able to generate more money for recipients, will not be as helpful in developing the virtue of the givers in Maimonides’ eyes. Maimonides clearly valued humility in giving. Even if, going forward, the participants in the “Pledge” try to give anonymously, it will be difficult for them to avoid being hounded by snoops looking to keep score, and their very participation will make it likely that they give very publicly, indeed.

Our culture may no longer value anonymity in charity, and certainly does not respect it. But it is worth thinking again about what Maimonides had to say and what we might learn from it.

5 thoughts on “The ladder of charity”

  1. Drew says:

    You have reminded us of something that is very worthy. Quiet and anonymous giving can be respected and should be welcomed. I am afraid in this cable TV/Internet blogging age that a major gift cannot be kept hidden for long. Most donors should be aware that their giving will be known and be ready to explain why they gave.

    I was surprised that almost 500 people wrote in about the Gates/Buffett Giving Pledge and almost 2/3’s complained. I wonder if Gates/Buffett will take any different actions. I imagine both men don’t face that degree of public opposition to their plans in their normal lives.

  2. Brigid says:

    Thanks for this post. I’ve also tackled the range of donor’s viewpoints, ranging from most to least selfish, which you might be interested to see.

    One question I have with this ladder of charity is #5 & 7, when the donor does not know the individual benefiting. In my analysis, I find that the *worst* types of philanthropy happen when the donor does not know the recipient. Without engaging the recipient, the donor doesn’t know what would be best to give, and instead gives something they (the donor) might like but for the recipient is either useless or harmful.

    I understand the point about anonymity and a donor not wanting praise, but if it serves to disconnect the donor and the recipient, I don’t agree that this is a better type of giving.

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