Peeping through a keyhole on Christmas morning, I could see the packages and toys Santa had brought for our band of four cousins. All under the age of 10, we took turns looking through the keyhole while my grandmother took her sweet time cooking breakfast.
She was sweet, and I’m sure breakfast was as well, but I was a 6-year-old with a can’t-you-hurry-this-along attitude. The Christmas tree, with gifts piled high all around, was my priority. I remember thinking I might need a ladder to climb up high and reach Raggedy Ann. Chatty Cathy wasn’t quite as high up, but there might still be a need for the ladder.
Ladders come in handy this time of year, from tree decorating to light hanging to reaching toys. Did you also know there is a giving ladder?
Twelfth-century Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides penned what is now called the “Eight Rungs of the Giving Ladder” under the name the “Mishneh Torah.”
We don’t usually stop for reflection this time of year. Just a few minutes, nonetheless, can be quite revealing about where we are on the giving ladder and what it tells us about our giving practice and style.
Starting at the bottom, we find a rung for those of us who give grudgingly, perhaps out of obligation. Next comes the rung for those of us who give less than we should, but we do it cheerfully. The next step is when we give directly after being asked to help someone in need, and the very next rung is when we give directly to someone in need before being asked.
We’re halfway to the top now. The next rung up is when the person in need is aware of us as the donor, but we don’t know who the recipient is. Perhaps we give to a fund for a particular cause, and the recipients learn who the donors are, but we never know who received our donation.
Next comes the rung where we know the recipients, but they don’t know us. This is at least one version of making an anonymous gift.
Now we’re very close to the top of the giving ladder, where neither the recipient nor we know each other. That’s another kind of anonymous giving.
At the very top of the ladder, we find the highest level of giving money, a loan, your time or whatever else it takes to enable an individual to be self-reliant. When we give at this level, we do so with a cheerful heart allowing the recipient their dignity.
In Maimonides’ time most giving was direct, occasionally through a trusted friend or adviser. The heart of the giver was in full view. Today, we climb the ladder of giving in partnership with nonprofit organizations. Whatever rung we are on there is a nonprofit ready to help us make that style of giving possible.
The style of our giving tends to be a private matter, known to very few. Maimonides’ giving ladder reflected a particular culture and time. Today, we respect giving styles regardless of the rung.
I would have added one more rung for the teachers among us who make time to model giving for children and grandchildren. On this rung, next generations learn about our giving, perhaps share in giving experiences and share in lessons learned.
I hope you find time this holiday season for at least one teachable moment by sharing your own giving story or sharing in the gift of giving as a family. Giving sticks by doing it year after year. Sharing giving sticks when you share it year after year.
If your family is far away, invite friends to share in a giving experience. Start a giving tradition you can share and repeat every year. Start with whatever family and friends are around.
As donors, we come in all sizes and shapes, like Christmas packages. We find ourselves on different rungs of the giving ladder from one gift to the next. It’s not about the size of the gift, or where we are on the giving ladder. Start by making a gift. To give well, share it or teach it.