The 90-degree shift 800 years ago

Published by Reinier Spruit on

It’s been some years ago since I’ve read Ken Burnett’s 89 great ideas in The Zen of Fundraising. Many, if not all of them, keep coming back to me from time to time. Lately it’s this one: make the 90-degree shift. Ken explains: “The 90-degree shift is nothing more complex than seeing things from your donor’s point of view rather than from your own or your organization’s point of view.”

He illustrates this with three good old marketing sayings:
– When a customer buys a quarter-inch drill, what he really wants is a quarter-inch hole.
– It doesn’t matter what you want to sell. The only thing that matters is what they want to buy.
– People don’t read advertisements. They read what interests them. Sometimes that includes an advertisement.

According to Ken, “almost nothing will make your fundraising more successful than learning to implement this simple attitude of mind.”

More recently I read the (free-downloadable) book How advertising will heal the world and your business, from Mark Woerde.

FYI: The book calls for a radical paradigm shift in branding: consumers are waiting for Meaningful Prosocial Brands (MPBs) to fulfill a basic, strong and growing need: the need to live a meaningful life. MPBs go beyond conventional Corporate Social Responsibility and use their marketing power to engage target groups and help them to help others by tackling societal issues. (Which Corporate Fundraiser is willing to write the book review?)

Anyway, while explaining his theory, Woerde looks at supporter motivations, feelings and reasoning using the Golden Ladder of Charity, which was developed by Moses Maimonides in the 12th century. More than 800 years before Ken Burnett explained the 90-degree shift, there was a man named Maimonides who apparently was a star in understanding supporters!

The Golden Ladder of Charity shows different ways of charitable behavior. Although Maimonides’ work refers to tzedakah, which in Judaism refers to the religious obligation to perform charity and philanthropic acts, you can see a lot of similarities with current voluntary philanthropic behavior of our supporters.

The eight different ways of giving are:
1. Giving with regret or reluctance. A gift of the hand and not with the heart.
2. Giving willingly, but inadequately to the distress of the sufferer.
3. Giving willingly and adequately, but not until we are solicited.
4. Giving willingly, adequately and even unsolicited. But by personally giving it to the sufferer it also excites the painful emotion of shame in him.
5. Giving publicly to an unknown recipient.
6. Giving anonymously to a known recipient.
7. Giving anonymously to an unknown recipient via a third party.

8. “Lastly the eighth and the most meritorious of all, is to anticipate charity, by preventing poverty; namely, to assist the reduced brother, either by a considerable gift, or a loan of money, or by teaching him a trade, or by putting him in the way of business, so that he may earn an honest livelihood; and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding up his hand for charity. This is highest step and the summit of charity’s Golden Ladder.(Hurwitz, H. The Ancient Herbrew Sages, Morrison and Watt, 1826)

Maimonides made the 90-degree shift 800 years ago. He looked at supporters and tried to understand their behavior, their values and reasons behind charitable giving: their point of view. It’s easy thinking about telemarketing, direct mail and legacy fundraising programs, or being unflexible in donor recognition. But remember: that’s what we want to do and not necessarily what and how our supporters want to give!

Reinier Spruit

Reinier Spruit

Reinier is in love with fundraising since 2001. Ever since he's trying to improve his own fundraising skills and those of others. He's one of the original founders of 101fundraising. At the moment working with amazing clients through his one-man fundraising consultancy. Loves running and baseball.


Michael Johnston · August 5, 2011 at 15:14


Good post! I can’t think of a better place to explore the beauty of giving when you’re talking to donors about leaving a legacy to an organization. At the end of your life, having surveyed the journey, the action of leaving much of your life’s wealth to a charity (and also taking care of your family) is always inspiring. Get me in a room with 10 80 year olds and you’re watching people who have climbed all the way up the Golden Ladder…

    Reinier Spruit · August 5, 2011 at 19:09

    Thanks Michael, I totally agree with you. But let’s take up the challenge to reach the highest step of the ladder sooner than 80 :-)

Jessica Journey · August 5, 2011 at 15:16

Great post! As fundraisers, we do need a reminder that it is all about others’ and their perspective. Donor intent, clients’ thoughts, and community feedback should be the life blood of our work – NOT the latest thing we heard at a popular fundraising workshop! Good job keeping us on task.

    Reinier Spruit · August 5, 2011 at 19:05

    Thanks Jessica! It’s hard not being distracted with all new developments. But if we take the supporter as starting point of every new development we have a good chance of success!

Ken Burnett · August 5, 2011 at 15:48

Hi Reinier,

I really like this post (of course) because you have picked on the one simple thing that all fundraisers could practice, and that really would make a big difference. Thanks too for reminding me of Moses Malmonides. I had come across his story before and, because it’s part of fundraising history, I wanted to capture it and put in on SOFII. But somehow it slipped away. Can I have your permission to post it on SOFII, in your name?

Keep up the great work, and all best,


    Reinier Spruit · August 5, 2011 at 18:54

    Hi Ken, thanks for your comment. I thought you’d like this ;-)

    Of course you can use it for SOFII, no problem, it’s my pleasure. My 90-degree shift feeling says that the SOFII readers will like it as well!

Sean Gardner · August 5, 2011 at 23:42

Great post, with very good tips on the psychology and legacy of giving.


Keith C. Kerbe · August 14, 2011 at 16:26

Along the line of the “90 degree shift” I make it a habit to repeat the mantra, “I am not the target audience” when creating appeals and preparing for asks. I’ve been doing so since taking a class with Bernard Ross a few years ago.

“Zen” is a great book as is the quote by Maimanides. Nothing much new ‘under the sun” if one is willing to dig around. Thanks for sharing.

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