For The Perplexed, A Guide To Giving
Tue, 10/12/2010
Staff Writer

A middle-aged professional in the Jewish communal world, Ari H. deals with a dilemma of Jewish life every time he returns from his Manhattan office to his home in Bergen County — how to honor the mitzvah of giving tzedakah with integrity while sorting out the constant requests for his money.

Collectors for various Jewish charities, domestic and from Israel, show up at his synagogue on a regular basis. Sometimes men — it’s always men, usually bearded men — show up at his door, driven around the area from Jewish house to Jewish house by a hired driver who has a chart of donors that is the Jewish equivalent of “a map of stars in Hollywood.” Phone calls from various institutions in the States and Israel come into Ari’s home at least several times a week. And the fundraising letters never stop coming.

Ari, a generous man, listens politely to the requests, rarely turning anyone away empty-handed, usually favoring the charities he already knows or favors, especially those from his area.

For many members of the Jewish community, especially those who live in towns or neighborhoods with large Jewish populations, requests for tzedakah — usually translated as charity, but rooted in the Hebrew word for justice — are a constant fact of Jewish life. In some places, collectors come to people’s houses or apartments, often armed with glossy brochures and impressive letters of recommendations. Calls from insistent collectors and letters from worthy schools and organizations come in almost daily. For the wired generation, pleas online, on Facebook and Twitter, are a growing presence.

Anyone who has visited Israel knows the ubiquitous beggars at the Western Wall, religious neighborhoods and popular tourist sites.

What do you do? Do you give a handout to everyone with a hand out? How much? When do you just say no? How do you know who’s honest and who’s a fraud, whose charity supports your concerns or spends its money efficiently? How do you make smart decisions from a Jewish and financial standpoint?

The Jewish Week talked with several experts who are familiar with the world of tzedakah, from a halachic and economic perspective.

Here’s what they say:

General advice

First, you don’t have to give to everyone who asks.

If you give, you don’t have to give a lot.

And if you do give, do it with a smile.

According to Maimonides, the lowest of eight levels of charity is when “donations are given grudgingly.”

“Anyone who gives tzedakah in a surly manner and with a gloomy face completely nullifies the merit of his own deed, even if he gives a thousand gold pieces,” Maimonides writes.

Be suspicious before you part with your money. But not too suspicious. Rabbi Chaim of Sanz, a 19th-century chasidic leader in Poland, would tell his followers, “The merit of charity is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud.”

You have the right — actually the obligation — to ask pertinent questions of people who ask for your tzedakah funds, in person or on the phone, the experts say.

“Donors have a right and responsibility to know about the organizations to which they contribute and charities have a reciprocal responsibility to be transparent,” the just-tzedakah.org website states.

Arnie Draiman, a veteran tzedakah consultant in Israel and representative of several donors and foundations, suggests that you be alert to a fundraising organization’s Manhattan address (headquarters in the outer boroughs or New Jersey are far less pricey) and “slick” promotional literature (unless paid for separately by a supporter, that’s a big chuck of overhead).

Ask about these before you write a check, Draiman says. “If it was your pension fund, you would ask these questions.” Other red flags: heart-tugging pictures of children, the improper use of “big brother” or “soup kitchen” in an Israeli organization’s title, or of an organization’s description of itself as an orphanage. “There’s no such thing here.

“For an organization to be run inefficiently (by paying too much rent, high salaries, too much for fundraising, 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,” Draiman says. “When you are not giving properly, Judaism is clear: You are stealing from the poor person, since tzedakah money was never yours to begin with.”

A donor should know four things about an organization to which he or she gives money, says Danny Siegel, author and founder of the Ziv Tzedakah Fund, which raised millions of dollars for scores of charitable organizations over nearly three decades: “How much is the overhead? How much is spent on fundraising, publicity, and similar items in relation to how much actually goes to the stated programs? Is the financial sheet understandable? If individuals receive salaries, do they seem reasonable to you?’

“Inefficiency, waste and mismanagement are more common than outright fraud,” Siegel writes in “Giving Your Money Away” (Town House Press, 2006). If a charitable organization contacts you, Siegel says, ask the organization’s representative how much was spent on such items as a website or DVDs or mass mailings, and if the organization gives or sells your name to other organizations without your express consent. “In no uncertain terms, this is unethical Jewishly and a severe abuse of the donor.”

Once you decide to give, first consider recipients in your local community, all Jewish sources agree. Then, give wisely.

According to Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, “A person should not contribute to a tzedakah unless he knows its management is reliable and knows how to conduct the fund properly.”

If you do this, you won’t be alone.

“A growing number of Americans are performing due diligence research with the fervor of investors screening stocks,” CBS.marketwatch.com reports. “Philanthropy is coming to be seen more of an investment in a cause than an act of generosity or a tax deduction.”

Potential donors should know the IRS 990 — “Return of Organizations Exempt From Income Tax.” It is submitted by tax-exempt organizations and non-profits to provide the Internal Revenue Service with annual financial information. The form provides the public with financial information about a given organization, is often the only source of such information, and must be provided by an organization to anyone who requests it, whether in person, by mail, fax, or e-mail.

“Financial data tell only a small part of the story,” says Ira Kaminow, president of just-tzedakah.org. “Evaluations of charities should also include consideration of such non-financial factors as the quality of programs, the effectiveness of the stewardship of resources, and the ethical behavior of management.

“You should not give to anyone you know cannot handle tzedakah funds in a capable and tzedakah-worthy manner,” he says.

Just-tzedakah.org encourages donors to ask charities that solicit their money to fill out the organization’s application (just-tzedakah.org/trApplication.pdf.)

General tzedakah principles are available at the organization’s website (just-tzedakah.org/guidelinesIntroduction.asp) and at a lecture by Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz posted on the site (just-tzedakah.org/AccessRabbiBreitowitzLecture.asp.)

The Internet, often a source of fundraising frauds, also is a boon to people wishing to research potential recipients.

Just-tzedakah.org profiles Jewish charities on its online database, and a new Israeli website, midot.org.il, does the same thing for Israeli charities.

Charitynavigator.com, an independent organization that evaluates American charities, offers information on more than 5,400 charities.

Guidestar.com, an information service that specializes in U.S. nonprofit companies, offers information on more than 1.7 million IRS-recognized nonprofit organizations. Guidestar does not rate or rank the organizations. Justgive.org does similar work.

The Better Business Bureau (bbb.org) lists hundreds of charitable organizations, with details on how each complies with the BBB’s list of 20 standards that mark a legitimate organization. BBB also offers its own Wise Giving Guide at bbb.org/charity-reviews/national. Standardsforexcellence.org offers a similar service.

Givingwisely.org maintains a large database of Israeli amutot (nonprofit foundations and organizations).

Use the online services judiciously, experts advise.

“A four-star rating on Guidestar or Charity Navigator does not mean that it is a four-star efficient tzedakah organization,” Draiman says. “This is particularly true when researching an Israeli organization, because you really only see the ‘Americans Friends of’ [fundraising affiliate] on the 990 form. You still need to look at the annual financial report — it is public record in the United States and in Israel — for the local Israeli organization.”

“Charity Navigator lowers ratings for organizations whose revenue is declining and must therefore cut back on programming,” says Kaminow. “But if a worthwhile charity is struggling to raise money, that may be exactly where I want my tzedakah to go.

“Charity Navigator gives higher scores to organizations that have higher amounts of working capital relative to operating expenses,” Kaminow says. “However, a donor may legitimately want to avoid charities that have large amounts of cash and liquid assets, which may imply that the charity doesn’t know what to do with its money. Charity Navigator gives high marks to organizations that spend the least on overhead. However, research shows that too little spent on overhead can lead to poor management.”

In person

You’re in shul, you’re at home, you’re on the street and someone asks for a donation — for himself or for an organization.

Most tzedakah experts say you should give something, especially if it’s for a person’s own needs. If the solicitor is hungry, buy him or her some food instead of giving a donation.

Someone comes to your door. Ask if he is alone, or if some other solicitors are waiting out of sight. Ask about the person’s background and the need for which he is collecting; ask if there is an independent authority, like a social worker, whom you can contact.

If the person is representing an organization, ask to see some literature — you can send in a donation later.

Ask about the institution’s operating procedures, Kaminow says: does it have a self-examination policy, financial controls, a follow-up by an outside monitoring authority? Online, you can investigate the organization’s record of treating its employees.

Always ask for literature about the organization, Draiman says. “The burden is on them. Ninety percent of the time they won’t have it, and you’re off the hook.”

Some Jewish communities have instituted a communal policy for dealing with solicitors, either a required letter of approval from a local rabbinical organization or joint fund that allocates donations.

Congregation Ahavas Israel in Passaic, N.J., an Orthodox synagogue in a city with a large Orthodox population, has a posted policy that regulates the behavior of tzedakah collectors: No collecting in the sanctuary itself or during the times of worship services.

On the phone

Phone solicitations are more anonymous than in-person contacts, so more diligence is required.

First, says, Draiman, ask the solicitors if they work for the recipient organization itself or for a professional fundraising business that receives a percentage of the money collected. If the latter, you may to contribute directly to the organization.

Second, if you’re called by an “American Friends of” organization, question if you prefer to give to the U.S. affiliate — essentially a middleman with its own overhead and expenses — or directly to the Israeli organization.

“Ask the solicitor to mail or e-mail you the organization’s financial reports,” Danny Siegel says. “If the organization does not, then your obligation to give ends there.”

Before giving, confirm a charity’s 501 (c) (3) status, Charity Navigator advises.

What if a phone solicitor is pushy? “Hang up the phone,” Charity Navigator says. “Investigate the charity on-line and send [a] contribution directly to the charity, thereby cutting out the middleman.”

In the mail and online

You get a fundraising letter from an organization you don’t know. Throw it away, Kaminow says.

In the letter is an unrequested gift, a small writing pad or calendar, designed to induce you to give. Keep it, he says.

“Refrain from giving small donations to many charities,” Charity Navigator advises. “The quickest and mote surefire way to wind up on mailing lists is to make lots of small charitable donations. Small donations, such as $25, barely cover the costs the charity incurred in soliciting the gift. To recoup those costs, many charities will simply sell the donor’s name to another charity doing similar work.

“Charities obviously tend to be much more protective of donors that give large gifts,” Charity Navigator adds. “A charity would never divulge a mid- to high-level donor’s personal information to another charity.”

Of course, don’t giver personal information like your Social Security number, date of birth, or bank account number and PIN.

Charity Navigator has simple advice about email solicitations. “Do not respond to email solicitations.” Even if the message doesn’t ask you to serve as the middleman for some stranger overseas who stands to inherit millions of dollars and you can reap a windfall for your modest services. This, of course, is a scam.

“Unless you’ve signed up to receive a charity’s electronic communications, be skeptical of email solicitations,” Charity Navigator warns. “As a general rule legitimate organizations do not solicit funds through email.

“Start by examining the web address,” Charity Navigator says. “Most nonprofit web addresses end with dot org and not dot com. Avoid web addresses that end in a series of numbers.”