Tzedakah Postscript

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Some further clarification of the issues I raised in an earlier piece.

Judging people favorably is sometimes a halachic requirement, and sometimes just an admirable trait, even when not absolutely required. Never, however, does it require throwing discretion to the winds. When the need is great enough, we become suspicious. (See Rambam, Commentary to Mishna, Yoma 1:5, end, regarding measures taken to insure that the High Priest did not follow Sadducee practice in the Holy of Holies.) Specifically in reference to charitable giving, halacha is pretty clear. While you may give a small amount without investigation, a larger contribution calls for a checking of credentials (Yoreh Deah 250:3; see Shach loc.cit. #4. The value of a larger gift is not immediately clear to me. The Taz #1 writes that an amount greater than the cost of a single meal is definitely a larger gift.)

If you are interested in learning more about how tzedakos rate when measured against each other, and how most IRS-recognized charities opt to keep their exemption from opening their books to the public, I would recommend two sources – one general (www.charitynavigator.org) and one Jewish (www.just-tzedakah.org ). Between them, you will find all sorts of pleasant and unpleasant surprises, such as a downloadable shiur on priorities in tzedakah giving, the extremely high overhead of some charities (sometimes over 90%), and the highest rating possible given by the non-Jewish site to one of Israel’s venerable agencies, Yad Eliezer.

Back in my yeshiva days, we used to get sent out periodically to raise funds. Often, the amounts raised in a distant state hardly covered the cost of the airfare and lodging. It was wonderful and necessary experience for us students, teaching us how to interact with people often far less observant, as well as the difficulties and responsibility of fundraising. Yet, it bothered me that those from whom we collected would have been more than surprised to learn that the vast majority of their check was being directed to a travel agent, not to the salaries of rabbeim. It was enough to turn me into a cynic about charitable efficiency for a lifetime.

In the long run, some tzedakos would likely have to streamline their operations if enough people demanded open books. What do you do in the short run if you are interested in cost-efficiency? You can get useful information on some charities at the websites named above. Alternatively, you can donate to “boutique” charities that are known to have little or no expenses and overhead. These are run by zealous volunteers (often from the business community) who carefully oversee all aspects of the operation. Some of my favorites are Tzidkas Yosef Naftoli (food packages just before Pesach and Sukkos to selected recipients), Keren Y&Y (vouchers good for purchase of food items only at the local makolet(grocery), which in turn agrees to provide the items at a discount), and the marvelous work of tzedakah sleuths Rabbis Goldberg and Dovid Leib Cohen with the absolutely neediest in Israel. These organizations are super-lean, and run personally by people of the highest integrity and scrupulousness.

Jonathan Rosenblum commented that the thrust of his original article was that he was more concerned with the effect that fraud has on the broader society than with the waste of tzedakah funds. He picked the right parsha to make his point. Our Torah reading this week includes the hefty fine that comes with stealing cattle and sheep, far in excess of that which is imposed for stealing other items. R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the discrepancy. Certain occupations, he writes, are made possible only through public trust. It was simply impossible in antiquity to fence in all animals. People raised domesticated animals only because others reapected their ownership rights. Cattle-rustling robbed people of more than a few animals. By disrupting the common trust, it made raising cattle impossible for the many, and thus was a much more serious crime. The parallel is clear.

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5 Responses

  1. Yochanan says:

    Another useful resource is http://www.guidestar.com, which with a free membership signup, provides access to the tax returns of those not-for-profits that file them.

    Houses of worship don’t need to file so, unfortunately, many organizations organize as shuls and don’t file. (You can imagine the conversation when I check a meshulach’s organization on line and then ask when and where Shachris is.) I find myself increasingly resentful of my responsibility to let them know that this prevents me from giving more than a token “kol haposheis es yado” amount.

    Generally, I find that the message that I can’t give if your tzedaka isn’t a 501(c)(3), because that reduces the total amount of money ending up in tzedakah, has already been absorbed in the meshulach community. As you write, the message that I want open books before giving real money, has not, and is generally taken as a rude sign of distrust.

    From a perspective of my middos, I suppose it is a good thing if my itemized donations list reflects a very large number of very small donations. I suspect it is not the best thing from the perspective of maximizing the impact for aniyim.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    When we lived in Oak Park, MI, that community also had a system for sizing up tzedaka collectors and giving them credentials.

  3. Hillel (Sabba) Markowitz says:

    I think that is why the plastic cards given out by Rabbi Heinemann in Baltimore are so respected even in other communities. He checks each person and makes sure that people are legitimate and have a real need. The Agudah also provides scrip to use for the tzedaka so that a person can buy a significant amount and distribute as needed. This scrip is purchased with a 20% surcharge. The person redeeming the script gets the face value and the surcharge is distributed to local mosdos. That way giving to tzedaka does not cause local needs to be neglected.

    As a practical matter, a person purchasing the scrip can buy adequate ammounts by check and have records for his Maaser calculations as well as for the IRS. Additionally, it makes sure that a person will always have something available to give the person collecting tzedaka as well as helping to ensure that the person collecting is indeed honest.

  4. arnie draiman says:

    very good article. my mentor is danny siegel (www.dannysiegel.com) and he has for more than 35 years been teaching people the halachot relating to giving tzedakah.

    nothing is as important as making your tzedakah shekels be used in as an efficient and effective manner. for an organization to be run inefficiently (by paying too much rent, high salaries, too much for fund raising, etc.) or to be run ineffectively (by not serving the population that they say they are serving or not accomplishing various goals, etc.) is basically stealing from the very poor people your tzedakah money is intended for. (see “al tigzol dal, kee dal hu” – mishlei 22:22 and the various comments on it, paticularly bamidbar rabba 5:2)

    you can see danny’s list of his top 100 mitzvah heroes (those good people doing good work, and doing it efficiently and effectively) at: http://www.ziv.org (in the annual reports section).

    one caveat i would point out is that a four star rating on guidestar or charitynavigator does NOT mean it is a four-star efficient tzedakah org. this is particularly true when researching an israeli organization, because you really only see the ‘american friends of’ on the usa 990 form. you still need to look at the annual financial report (it is public record in the usa and in israel) for the local israeli organization which they file yearly with the non-profit registrar.

    i am happy to discuss this further with anyone interested!

    arnie draiman
    soosim @ netmedia.net.il

  5. ja says:

    Do you have addresses (or even better, urls) for the tzedakas you recommend? thanks.

    [Ed. – Glad you mentioned that.
    Keren Y&Y https://www.kerenyehoshuavyisroel.com/keren/families/index.cfm

    Yad Eliezer http://www.yadeliezer.org/site/home.php

    Tzidkas Yosef Naftoli does not have a website. Their US mailing address is Tzidkas Yosef Naftoli c/o Wesel 5121 17th Ave. Brooklyn NY 11204 Tax ID# 11-2746017]