Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, was among the greatest Jewish scholars of all time. His teachings and global perspective 1,000 years ago are still studied and widely embraced. He was a philosopher, physician, political adviser, and legal authority. Maimonides balanced parallel worlds of Jewish law and (then) modern thinking.
Maimonides also gave us the ladder of giving, enunciating the eight highest ways of tzedakah. He taught that giving was an obligation about which we need to be particularly scrupulous, providing a hierarchy from most noble to the least.
“We must be especially careful to observe the mitzvah of tzedakah, more so than any other positive mitzvah,” he wrote in his law code, the Mishneh Torah. Can you imagine that one of the foremost Jewish scholars of all time says that you need to be more careful about giving than, say, honoring parents or observing Yom Kippur?
As Giving Tuesday approaches – and December charitable giving exceeds all other months – we want to share some experiences and observations from our decades of nonprofit work to elevate your charitable giving to Israel to be the most impactful.
Paralleling Maimonides’ eight levels, here are the eight “Dumb Ways to Give”:
1. Don’t know who you’re giving to
“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Sometimes even the most honest-appearing person may not be all that honest, can hide information, or most likely just mismanages charitable funds in a way that diminishes the impact. After all, they might be trained in social work or as clergy, but not business administration. Just because someone is a rabbi or community leader, and just because the cause may indeed sound important, does not mean they can be totally trusted with precious charitable funds. You need to know who you’re giving to.
2. Only give to places with round number appeals
If you’re seeing appeals that “your donation of $100” or any other obvious round number (especially the Jewish tradition of giving in multiples of 18, representing “chai,” life in Hebrew,) will do “X,” raise an eyebrow or two and question what’s the actual cost. How an organization raises money represents its integrity. You have a right to expect an accurate costing of needs.
3. Slicker is better
High-end productions do not mean the cause promoted is more worthy or legitimate, just that they’re spending more money on slick advertising – in print, social media and video. One should beware of false and overly dramatic claims and slick campaigns, infomercials being aired over and over with the same needs, etc.
• Israel suffers a fire, and an organization claims they are going to rebuild the forest or the houses. Do they really have the ability and legitimate connections to do so?
• “Feeding Holocaust survivors” is important, but some survivors are well cared for. Some are not. Is this organization feeding only survivors, or are they feeding the elderly, some of whom happen to be survivors (by chance)? Is the organization using survivors in their PR to raise funds, but only helping survivors in a limited way? Is a $25 food package really helpful?
• “Your support will help respond to the Iranian threat.” Sorry, but there are no non-profits that are dealing with the Iranian threat. To use that to frighten you to give just isn’t kosher.
• “We are combating antisemitism.” Great. You probably don’t want to give to an organization that’s supporting antisemitism. But what reach, novel approach, or presence does the organization have in order to really do something?
4. High salaries are good
Does the CEO work harder or more hours than the fundraising staff who brings in the money, or the social worker doing the actual work? What’s the justification for the top five employees to have salaries collectively in the millions of dollars? The top salaries are public information reported annually. Is $1m a year too much? $500,000? $250,000? (Yes, many non-profit execs earn these big numbers.)
A phenomenon among “American Friends” organizations is that the collective overhead is astonishing. Those funds are coming off the top of what’s raised even before the money makes it to Israel, where the local organization also has its overhead. For example, if you donate $100, and the “American Friends” only takes 20% overhead, they then transfer the remaining $80 to the Israeli organization. The Israeli organization has its own 20% overhead as well. So maybe they will spend the remaining $64 on their social cause from your original $100. In society, like in school, that’s a failing grade!
5. Be a number, not a name
Organizations send endless “Dear Friend” emails, direct mailings, and text messages because they work. Do you only hear from them when they want money? Is every communication simply an appeal for funding? Do you have a relationship, or are you just a number, a donor to be taken from rather than interacted with? Do you know the people at the organization, and do they know you?
6. Integrity shmitegrity
Maimonides lists three qualifications for people who run public charities.
• They must have impeccable credentials and be exceptionally trustworthy.
• Really know how to run and administer an organization.
• Be insightful about the essence and ways of tzedakah.
The integrity of whom you entrust with your charitable giving matters.
7. Raising money on the back of Israel
There’s a proclivity to objectify American Jews or Christians worldwide as “a faith-based ATM.”
Are their claims real? You need to know the need and understand Israeli society. Is everything Israel good, proper, right? No! Of course not. Check carefully!
8. But they do such good work
Don’t be swayed just because they talk about, or someone told you about, “all the good work they do in Israel.” While doing good work is a necessary criterion for supporting an organization, it is not a sufficient one. Per Maimonides, you must be very, very careful in your giving. Check the organizations’ financials. Dig deeper than just a two-minute phone call with a “sales” rep. Ask around. Go online to websites like guidestar.org and charitynavigator.org. Spend a few extra minutes to really understand.
We want you to give generously and frequently, with love and joy about being able to help others. But we want you to do it responsibly, with eyes open as wide as your heart is big.
To learn more, join our Inspiration from Zion podcast conversation.
Arnie Draiman is a philanthropic consultant helping people and foundations from around the world give their tzedakah money away wisely, efficiently and effectively, for more than 20 years. [email protected], www.draimanconsulting.com
Jonathan Feldstein is a 35-year nonprofit professional and president of the Genesis 123 Foundation, building bridges between Jews and Christians and Christians with Israel.