Stop Following the Golden Rule!

That’s right. I want you to stop following the Golden Rule. I know your parents probably told you it was the right way to behave, the nice way to behave, but it’s not. 

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I’ll admit it does have a nice ring to it. But, think about it. It’s ego-centric not donor-centered; it assumes that the way I wish to be treated is the one way everyone should want to be treated. Behave this way in fundraising, and you will alienate prospects and raise far less money than would otherwise be possible.

Tony Alessandra, PhD, CSP, CPAE, President of the Assessment Business Center, explains it further and offers an alternative: 

The Golden Rule is not a panacea. Think about it: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The Golden Rule implies the basic assumption that other people would like to be treated the way that you would like to be treated. That is patently false. In fact, it could be argued that the Golden Rule is a self-centered rule—and not unlike a traditional salesman who assumes his product is right for his prospect and approaches the sale without considering the prospect’s needs. In sales—and relationships—one size (yours) does not fit all. With the Golden Rule, you run a greater risk of creating conflict than chemistry. After all, people have different needs, wants, and ways of doing things. The alternative to the Golden Rule is much more productive. I call it the Platinum Rule: ‘Treat others the way they want to be treated.’ Ah-hah! Quite a difference. The Platinum Rule accommodates the feelings of others. The focus of relationships shifts from ‘this is what I want, so I’ll give everyone the same thing’ to ‘let me first understand what they want and then I’ll give it to them.’ Building rapport with people based on the Platinum Rule requires some thought and effort, but it is the most insightful, rewarding, and productive way to interact with people.

By following the Platinum Rule, we shift the focus from our organizations to donors and prospects. The Platinum Rule is donor-centered and, as a result, it will lead development professionals to achieve greater success and organizations will receive far greater benefit. When we help donors and prospects discover their philanthropic passion and show them how they can achieve their philanthropic goals while helping organizations fulfill their missions, development professionals will generate more and larger current gifts. By showing people how gift planning can help them to not only realize their philanthropic aspirations but also take care of their loved ones, development professionals can perform a great service for these individuals while serving and benefiting the nonprofit organizations that employ them by generating more planned gifts.

That’s what Michael Rosen Says… What do you say?


Note: Tony Alessandra, “The Platinum Rule,” adapted from the book The Platinum Rule (Warner Books, 1996), and also quoted in Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing.

24 Responses to “Stop Following the Golden Rule!”

  1. I say Dr. Alessandra has a sort of cynical view of the so-called “Golden Rule” which is often taken out of context from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount…”do for others what you would like them to do for you. This is a summary of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” Another summary of all that is in the law and the prophets is to love God and your neighbor. Since love does not seek its own, I see no real difference between Alessandra’s Platinum Rule and the oft misunderstood Golden Rule. The bigger question to me is do we love our donors? Do we seek their interests over and above our own?

    • Mark, I appreciate the time you took to comment. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Have the words of Jesus been misinterpretted over the milennia? I have no doubt. But, what Dr. Alessandra is addressing is the common understanding of the Golden Rule, misguided though that common understanding may be. I believe the point that Alessandra was making, and certainly the point I was attempting to make, is that it is not good enough to view the world solely from our own perspective. We should not be satisified by just treating people the way WE want to be treated. We need to be more empathetic than that. We need to think of the needs, wants, and concerns of others. We need to think of how others want to be treated. And, as you have suggested, we need to seek the interests of others over and above our own.

  2. I think the pressure of having to continuously come up with fresh material for the blog is beginning to show, with this distinction-without-a-difference posting. Not to take credit away from the attention-getting heading or “platinum vs. gold” theme, the Golden Rule really isn’t about the oatmeal raisin-loving hostess serving her favorite biscuit to the guest who might prefer a Mallomar. It’s simply about treating others with the same consideration, or in the same manner, that you would like to be treated.

    On the other hand, given Michael’s sagacity and insightfulness, I suspect this was just a creative effort to reinforce the principle and importance of donor-centeredness, which I heartily second.

    In the unforgettable words of Gilda Radner, “never mind.”

    That’s what Jeff Steele says. And everyone knows he’s a curmudgeon anyway.

    • Jeff, your comments always make me stop and think, and they usually put a smile on my face. Today was no exception. You clearly know me well enough by now to pick-up on my underlying theme: donor-centeredness. This blog post was meant to grab folks by the shoulders. My earlier attempts to make the point about donor-centeredness have been met with some approval but also a lot of indifference and even some hostility. For example, just last week, I was engaged in a Twitter debate with a writer for the Chronicle of Philanthropy who believes that “donor-centered” is just jargon. After some back and forth, I suggested it is probably a good thing that he merely writes about fundraising rather than actually doing it. I’m not sure I made a new friend. Oh well. This is an issue I’m passionate about. However, no need to worry, Jeff. I’ve got plenty more good, and even practical, material up my sleeve for future posts. So, stay tuned.

  3. Excellent! That helps a lot. I am new at this and the viewpoint will make it easier for me to connect with my donors. I do think, however, that the original Golden Rule is “do NOT do unto others as you would NOT have them do unto you” or something like that (I think from the Bible) which changes things considerably. From the good things to the bad things. Entirely different perspective! 😉 Thank you, again for your insight. I enjoy your article immensely.

    • Pam, thank you for your comments. First, let me say, welcome to the fundraising and/or planned giving world! Second, I appreciate your kind words, and I’m happy to know you found the article helpful. As for the original wording or meaning of the Golden Rule, I won’t get into that here; I’ll leave that discussion to folks better educated in the area than I am. You understand the primary point of the discussion: putting the donor first. That’s the most important thing here. I’ll look forward to hearing more from you in the future.

  4. I think you all have it wrong. In fundraising parlance the Golden Rule is: He who has the gold rules! meaning – you better be nice to the donor that has all of the gold.

    • Joel, thanks for writing. I think the difference might be the Golden Rule v. the Gold Rule. 🙂 Of course, you are correct; we had better be nice to the donors and prospects that have the gold, or silver, etc. Trouble can arise, however, when there is a difference between what the development officer views as “nice” and what the donor views as “nice.” Whenever possible, it should be the donor’s or prospect’s view that rules.

  5. In my humble opinion the ego-centric “problem” with the Golden Rule is overstated and superficially created by taking the axiom out of context and dismissing the presumptions that are usually underlying any axiom: In this case, that people want to be treated honestly, kindly, mercifully, respectfully etc. I presume this since the Golden Rule was attributed to Jesus 2000 years ago who would have been shaped by Israelite values of the Ten Commandments and the Torah lived out in a Roman dominated political system. Without unpacking all that lies behind an age old proverb one can easily render such an axiom as the Golden Rule or any other invalid.

    If the Golden Rule were completely ‘self-centered’ it might read “Do unto others in whatever way necessary to get what I want.”
    Of course, an axiom can be misused (aka selfishly used) without proper actions and thereby rendered to simply be a useless platitude.

    NONETHELESS, I find the ‘Platinum Rule’ to be a useful one to remember especially in our industry. And the ploy of comparing it to the Golden rule is thought-provoking.

    I am just not quite ready to employ the “let me understand what they want and I’ll give it to them” Platinum Rule when I am in a dialogue with a car salesman, Realtor, or time share rep.

    • Keith, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I just want to react to two of your points. First, while I acknowledge that the Golden Rule is often attributed to Jesus, it is actually a principle that has been articulated in many other cultures pre-dating the life of Jesus. For example, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, and Chinese, to name just a few, all expressed a similar sentiment. The Jewish sage Hillel taught, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation; go and learn.” It’s obviously a time honored principle that has enjoyed cross-cultural support. When properly implemented, the Golden Rule is a pretty good one. I just think the Platinum Rule leaves a bit less wiggle room for error.

      Second, I’d like to show you how applying the Platinum Rule to a car salesman can benefit you. Really. I went into a car dealership on the last day of the last month in the quarter, one-hour before closing. What did my salesman want? He wanted to sell just one more car to 1) meet his quota to receive a nice bonus in addition to the standard commission, and 2) get a tough to sell car off the lot. Knowing this and knowing I could give him that much needed sale, I was able to stake out an ambitious negotiating position for my second-choice car. In the end, by being sensitive to the salesman’s needs at quarter-end, I was able to get a great deal on car. We were both very happy!

  6. I agree with this in terms of fundraising, gleaning and non profit/charitable organizations. However on an inter- personal relationship level the Platinum rule runs closely akin it seems to walking on egg shells, catering and enabling. The problem with that psychologically speaking is that the person doing the eggshell walking, catering and enabling will often begin to resent the other person which manifests in anger and ill feelings creating overall turmoil. I do agree with the religious philosophies you put forth in your comment. Christianity is after all an offshoot of Judaism as is Islam. Most if not all spiritualities incorporate the Golden Rule in some capacity. This is given right thinking of an individual and not one insistent on beating themselves up with self induced shame guilt and regret. I think we’re apples and oranges on the use of platinum vs. golden rule ;D

    • Adrienne, thank you for taking the time to comment. By the way, I actually like apples and oranges. 🙂 I believe that The Golden Rule, The Platinum Rule or, for that matter, any rule, should not require an individual to harm themselves in compliance to the rule. A rule that would require an individual to harm themselves would be inherently unjust. So, following The Platinum Rule need not lead to resentment, anger, guilt, shame, etc. The problem is not with the rule. If there is a problem, it involves how the rule is observed. But, that’s pretty much true of any rule.

  7. I think this article reiterates some advice I was given, to always remember ‘I am not the target market.’ Just because you as an individual don’t like something or don’t think you would respond to it, doesn’t mean others think the same. Simple.

  8. Cheap cleverness….all proponents of the golden rule understand it’s proper use. Find a sermon advocating giving others exactly what you want. This article is classic straw man logic. A friend of mine gave his wife a power drill on their anniversary….but under the drill was a diamond necklace. Funny? I thought so. So did she. Why did we think it was funny? Because everyone grasps the intent of the golden rule.

    • John, thank you for comment. I’m happy to be thought of as clever.

      First, I don’t agree with you that “all proponents of the Golden Rule understand it’s proper use.” That’s simply wishful thinking. Second, your example of the anniversary actually proves MY point, not yours. I really doubt that the husband was secretly wishing to receive a diamond necklace. However, he gave his wife this gift because he knew it was something SHE would want. He treated her, not the way he wanted, but the way SHE wanted. That’s the Platinum Rule!

      In any case, Golden Rule or Platinum Rule, what you and I are both talking about is showing people respect and treating them well. Slap whatever label you want on it. If my cleverness got people to read my post and really, seriously consider how they treat others, then I’ve achieved something important.

  9. Michael: as usual, your post brings knowledge and insight. I’m upgrading to the Platinum Rule…with caveats. First, you are spot on to question the ego-centric presumption that the way I want to be treated is a universal truth. I prefer the know-your-audience approach you advocate.

    Why caveats? I need off-ramps for when donors want treatment that is illegal, unethical, or creates such inequity that other donors will feel slighted or our stewardship policies will suffer long-term degradation. I have seen all of these more than once…the last one many times?

    I am NOT advocating just saying “no” to these donor intentions…not at first anyway. Instead, the dialogue turns to, “I understand you are asking for X and my sense is that in asking for X you are really trying to achieve Y. While X presents Z challenge, I think we might be able to achieve what you want to achieve if we…”

    • Rick, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I completely agree with the caveats you’ve outlined. Even the best constructed rules should not be followed slavishly. You’ve provided some solid examples for when NOT to apply the Platinum Rule. Well done.

  10. The Golden Rule teaches people to act in a way in return for a reward: if you treat others well the reward is that they will treat you well.

    It creates a self-serving society.

    People should treat others well and justly because it is right, regardless of how they are treated in return. Doing right, for no reward, is the basis of “Good will towards others.”

    The Golden Rule undermines true good will towards others, because true good will has no reward.

    I do understand that this concept seems a bit utopian, but when people stop striving for moral and ethical perfection they lower the bar, even if it is unintentional.

    • Kris, thank you for sharing your perspective. I’m not quite as convinced that the Golden Rule “undermines true good.” I believe it contributes, in a limited way, to a more just and civil society. Research shows that when behavior changes, belief follows. So, if people obey the Golden Rule because they’re really being self-serving, that’s fine because, in time, they will come to believe in what they are doing and continue doing so for the right reasons. The great thing about the Golden Rule or Platinum Rule is that they work regardless of the motives of the individual adhering to them.


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