We all know the history of the Maccabees and the story of the oil lasting for
eight days. To many people it is truth, and to many others it is just a story.
In religion, it may not be so important to know what came first (the story, the
miracle, other eight-day winter holidays, etc.) or how much of it is factual. In
everyday life, however, there are situations in which we must learn to
distinguish between truth and legend. One of them involves tzedaka, the sacred
shekels we are entrusted with to distribute to those in need.
I have been
a philanthropic consultant for over 15 years and have helped foundations and
private philanthropists give out tens of millions of dollars. Tradition
sometimes is like legend.
There are certain organizations which you turn
to when you want to give money. Many are “ol’ reliables,” some are
Regardless, one must be very careful when giving and know how to
distinguish between legends and the real thing.
There is a Jewish
tradition which teaches that giving tzedaka to the wrong people or wrong
organization is a criminal offense. Tzedaka money is not ours – it is always
“theirs”; the people in need. And so, if you give poorly, to places with high
overheads and sloppy accountability, you are depriving the intended recipient of
what is rightly theirs. And you haven’t really fulfilled the mitzva of
My professional mentor and lifelong tzedaka educator Danny Siegel
teaches that organizations you give to must have a good person at the helm, they
must be doing good work, they must be doing it efficiently, and they must be
doing it effectively.
Efficiently means that the nonprofit should be
spending no more than 10 percent to 15% of your donations on anything other than
program costs. Why? Because obviously, not all organizations are run with
volunteers, nor with donated offices and equipment.
But not so obviously,
way too many organizations have been playing “keep up with the Joneses”; that
is, they need to increase salaries for senior staff (like in the private
sector), they need to make themselves large enough that no one would suggest
they aren’t relevant anymore, and they become more concerned with everything but
Six months ago, I was asked to donate to the Jewish
National Fund. I did a quick review of their financial information online –
available via guidestar.org and guidestar.org.il. I had many questions
concerning their finances, but the main issue was that it appeared they only
give out grants totaling about 40% of the money they raise.
I asked the
person who asked me for the donation for an explanation. I asked others. And I
even asked the CEO, who told me very clearly that I was wrong, but didn’t give
me any specifics.
I know the JNF does good work. But alas, six months
later, I am without any proper information about their efficiency. And until I
get it, I can not give to JNF.
Another troubling example that I recently
was asked to review was the very popular organization Heifer International.
They, too, do good work – they even have a “tzedaka” page, but I also discovered
that they apparently give out less than 50% of the money they take in. I have
asked them about it, so I will wait for the answers before advising people what
It is not popular to ask questions, possibly exposing the many
Jewish and Zionist organizations as the mere shells that they have become. It is
clear that when you take off all their clothes in public, everyone will see how
little flesh there is on their bones.
They are not attracting new money,
new blood, or new life from Jews and others for a reason.
Now is the time
to start to change. An annual report of executive salaries at Jewish nonprofits
was just published.
Read it, and then demand that senior staff salaries
be cut. Demand that the nonprofits be goal- and program-oriented, not just in
their mission statements but on their financial statements as well. Demand that
they return to their roots, when they were more efficient and more
The examples are numerous.
Please check carefully how
your donations are being used, and how much is actually going to what you think
it is going for.
Demand better. Otherwise, Hanukka “gelt” becomes Hanukka
The writer is a philanthropic consultant, living in Jerusalem. For
more than 15 years, he has been advising public and private foundations,
philanthropists and anyone who wants to know how to use their sacred tzedaka
money more efficiently.