Two trends in Jewish philanthropy, and how they affect my Rabbi's Benevolent Fund:
To my mind, one of the greatest innovations in Jewish philanthropy in the past decade-plus is the trend toward financial transparency. It's been a slow process of catching up with this global trend, but the change is long-overdue. In order for gabbaei tzedakah to have the credibility demanded by Shulchan Aruch, they must be willing to account for their distribution of tzedakah funds.
The shul rabbi bears that responsibility, too, vis-a-vis his Benevolent Fund; this is a communal fund meant to help the community meet its members' needs, and so it should be responsible to its stakeholders, the community.
In that spirit, I distribute annual reports documenting how I have spent the past year's contributions. No names of beneficiaries, of course, but a listing of how much went for tuition, for special collections, for loans vs. gifts, for Maos Chittim, etc. (For a sample report, feel free to email me.)
I must admit that I first did this for an entirely selfish reason: I was concerned lest people think the "Rabbi's Benevolent Fund" was a fund to help the rabbi, a wink-and-nod system in which people could give me tips and claim a tax write-off. So I decided to show everyone how the funds are used.
Interestingly, the report has become a tool, indirectly, for fund-raising. When people make substantive gifts to the fund, I send them a Thank You letter incorporating the annual report, and that encourages future contributions.
The other trend is toward verifying the validity of tzedakah organizations before contributing to them. This is explicitly required in Shulchan Aruch, but it is rarely done - largely because it requires significant effort and a degree of research sophistication.
Of course, va'adim in largish communities around the world check out the bona fides of meshulachim who come to make the rounds, but that doesn't help smaller communities, like my own. Further, it doesn't cover the myriad email, snail-mail and telephone solicitations, which come in by the bucket and often represent real needs.
Two standard resources are very good:
Guidestar offers financial data on many would-be recipients. The only major drawback is that shuls don't have to file the tax forms archived on the site, and many tzedakah organizations register as shuls.
Just Tzedakah is another organization offering research; check out their "Jewish Non-Profits in the Sunshine" project.
And then, last month, I met a new one: The Olam haTorah index. They sent a notice to a whole list of rabbis offering their services, and I found an immediate use for them.
A meshulach came to me collecting for a certain institution, and he said he knew me from previous years. I had no record for that institution from previous years, and I told him so. He promptly produced receipts under the names of two other institutions, saying his institution had been known previously by other names. Olam haTorah thoroughly researched the previous institutions and the current one, and provided me with a response in a timely fashion. I was very impressed.
In truth, I don't bother checking out the $5 recipients - but for serious tzedakah, I believe this is a requirement. Thank Gd we have organizations to help us with this mitzvah.