Monday, January 14, 2008

The Rabbi's Benevolent Fund hits the modern age

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.

Verifying Tzedakot
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.


  1. rabeynu -

    yasher koach! wow. this is so right on. exactly what more and more people need to be saying, teaching and preaching.

    i actually earn a living (baruch Hashem) from doing the due diligence necessary on behalf of private philanthropists and foundations.

    transparency and verification are crucial to giving back (not giving away, but giving back) tzedakah funds. (why giving back? because tzedakah money never belongs to you in the first place - it always belongs to the recipients! we are merely the guardians thereof).

    i am not convinced that the websites you listed do due diligence. rather, they simply report information and you still need to digest it in order to understand it and make an educated decision.

    two other things:

    check out - he is the modern pioneer for what you are teaching.

    and, where in the shulchan aruch does it talk about verifying the validity of tzedakah organizations before contributing to them. i know the rambam material, but maybe i missed this one.

    thank you and keep up the good work. teezkeh l'mitzvot!

    arnie draiman
    philanthropic consultant

  2. Hello Arnie,

    Thanks for your comments and compliments.

    I'm away from home at the moment, but just as a quick reply:
    1. I agree - these sites cannot provide a Thumbs Up/Down; they only provide information which the reader needs to analyze before making a decision.

    2. - will do;thanks! I know of Danny, and look forward to checking out his site.

    3. See Rama Yoreh Deah 256:1, where he writes, "The collectors (gabbaim) must be credible and wise, and they must carefully examine the needy to ensure that they are not tricksters. If a collector is not credible, it is forbidden to give tzedakah through him."

  3. I met to link to this earlier, but got caught up with a few large projects. I really hope you idea catches on. Reports such as yours should also give a good picture about the challenges in your community. Chazak U'baruch.

  4. Thank you, Rabbi Torczyner for pointing out the services that Olam Hatorah provides as long with the other websites. I know that every dollar given to tzedaka is a zechus for the giver even when the receiver isn't who he claims to be but let's be honest to ourselves that when we give tzedaka knowing that a worthy cause is receiving our money we feel better. May we all be zocheh to give our "dues" to those who truly need the help and may we give with an open and happy heart.