Hanukka gelt, Hanukka guilt

Check carefully how your donations are being used, and how much is actually going to what you think it is going for.

Money cash Shekels currency 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Money cash Shekels currency 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 newer.
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 giving.
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 the recipients.
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 to do.
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 effective.
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 guilt.
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.