Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Brainstorming the Tzedaka Problem

One of the commenters on the Are There Too Many Tzedaka Organizations posting asked "What's next?" We know there is a problem, so what do we do about it?

The following, in no specific order of importance, are some things that could be done in reining in the tzedaka organization problem.

1. Notify organizations that you do not want to get mail and/or phone calls from to remove you from their lists.

2. Send back any envelopes from organizations you don't want to get mail from marked "Addressee unknown."

3. Tell organizations that contact you that if they are not state registered that you won't be contributing, and to take you off their list.

4. Get together with other members of your shul and come up with a shul appeal platform. If your shul has been making appeals for two or more organizations that are doing duplicate tzedaka work or that largely overlap, decide on just one of them. Have the committee further declare that unregistered tzedaka organizations will not have appeals made for them. Have the shul refuse to give out the mailing addresses of members, which are routinely asked for by tzedaka organizations. Have the shul refuse to make an appeal for any organization whose operating funds/overhead is more than 20-30% (or lower) of collected contributions. If your Rav is not maskim to a committee that decides which appeals will be made, make it clear to your Rav that you will not contribute to any shul appeal that is for an organization that is not registered or that refuses to be openly transparent about how funds are used.

5. Insist that any yeshivas your children attend not collect tzedaka funds for any organization that is not registered. Insist that even among registered funds the school pick only those with the lowest overhead to contribute to.

6. Let rabbinic/synagogue organizations know that you expect them to discuss the problem of tzedaka organizations at their regular meetings. Tell them you expect them to come up with sensible guidelines--and give them some hints as to what you consider sensible--for their member rabbis and/or synagogues. Tell these rabbinic organizations that you will not contribute to a tzedaka that is not registered with your state and does not make its operating costs and actual contributions a matter of public record. Note: you aren't asking for the names of the individuals to whom these organizations gave money. Tell these rabbinic organizations that you will no longer contribute to duplicate tzedaka organizations that are in the same geographic area with only a few, specific exceptions. (I make this caveat on behalf of certain Bikur Cholim organizations in the NYC region. They not only service their specific geographic location but also service the various large hospital centers in the NYC region, hospital centers that are used by people living in all parts of the Metropolitan region.) And also tell these rabbinic organizations that you will no longer contribute to them unless they adopt a sane, rational policy about tzedaka organizations.

7. Relatively smaller or more insulated communities can do what I have already heard is done in some communities: no meshulach can try and collect in that area unless he is vetted by the local shul, according to guidelines the community has agreed to beforehand.

8. Perhaps a central registry of tzedaka organizations could be established (perhaps as an online site). A tzedaka organization could not appear in this registry unless it presented to the registry for publication it's financial records vis a vis itemized overhead and actual disbursements for the purpose the money was donated.

9. Encourage any organization that you know of, that keeps its overhead low and that does the good work it says it is going to do, to register with the state.

10. Tell your shul/yeshivas that you won't contribute to organizations that solicit funds over the phone and split the donations with the person doing the soliciting, and that you expect that they won't contribute to these organizations either.

11. Refuse to donate to organizations that contribute the funds they collect to other organizations--you don't need a middle man for tzedaka giving. One tzedaka fund that we know of regularly made donations to other places such as Ohel, Tomche Shabbos etc. When we found this out we point blank told them they would not be getting funds from our neighborhood if they continued this practice. They no longer do so.

12. Follow the dictate that local comes before "out there" when giving tzedaka.

13. Refuse to give to any hachnosas kallah fund outside of one maintained by your shul for the use of poor shul members only. This is one particular area where over duplication is notorious.

14. If you are solicited for a donation ask if the organization is staffed with all volunteers or with paid workers. Is there an office that is being paid for or is there donated space?

15. If you are involved with a yeshiva make it clear that you are not in favor of the Rosh Yeshiva's making a general appeal that goes to multiple communities for one Torah scholar with financial problems, particularly if that scholar is not a member of the yeshiva.

16. If you have given to a tzedaka organization and your check has not been deposited in a timely fashion or there have been other problems that clearly spell inefficiency of organization, let people know about it. If you are reading this posting then you already know that bloggers tend to spread the word.

17. Speak up and insist that communities should have a Vaad Ha'tzedaka in the same way that they have a Vaad Ha'kashrut. Every community Vaad should carefully look at the tzedakas that are active in their area and make a suggestion that duplicate organizations merge together. This Vaad would be responsible for giving a "hechsher" to those organizations that meet stringent requirements for disbursement of funds. Perhaps these various community Vaads could form a Council of Tzedaka Vaads whose purpose would be to apply rigorous standards to those organizations that are national rather than local in scope. Such a group would perforce need to have accountants and business people familiar with excellence of organization as members.

18. Last, but hardly least, vote with your pocketbook. It is not necessary to give to everyone who asks you for money. And if you choose not to donate to a particular organization, because they are not well run or because they overlap with a different tzedaka doing the same thing, let them know why you are not giving to them.

This list is not the be all and end all of suggestions--I'm sure you have more to add; however, there might be something in this list that could help you and/or your community in making sure that our tzedaka goes to the right place and is used in the right way. Let's hear from you.


Ruth said...

Your #17 should have been #1. Having a vaad for tzedaka would be a great idea. Our local vaad hakashrus refused to certify a pizza shop that was going to open only one block from the existing pizza place. They told the new place that our community was too small and did not need two pizza shops. Same thing could be applied to tzedaka organizations that do the same work.

SuMMy said...

Kudos for picking up my call to action.

These suggestions are good.

But if we stop at suggestions only- then we just have talk.

Next Action: Have the community give more suggestions
Future Tasks:
1) categorize suggestions and combine similar ones
2) group the ideas into 2 buckets:
communitiy activities vs personal activities
3) Make the personal steps known. It will be kind of like a 10 commandments of giving tzedakah.
4) give individuals the knowledge to be able to check on organizations on their own (e.g. guidestar etc)
5) work on implement the community suggestions, 1 at a time.

what do you think?

Tammy said...

Overhead costs alone are not a way to judge all tzedaka organizations although it would work for some. Ohel does excellent work but it has large staff overhead costs. But it needs that staff to do its tzedaka work. You can't counsel a troubled teen without having a counselor, and counselors are part of the overhead. So you'd need to differentiate between overhead costs that are unnecessary or out of line with good business practices and those that are integral or basic to the service being offered by the organization.

Lion of Zion said...


i understand the reasons why many small community vaads only permit a limited numbers of eateries. but my experience has been that quality (and portion size) drop precipitously (and price goes in the other direction) in the said eateries in smaller communities. a lack of competition is almost never good for the consumer.


"You can't counsel a troubled teen without having a counselor, and counselors are part of the overhead."

i don't think this is considered an overhead cost for the context of this discussion. the counselor is providing a direct service to the teen and that is exactly what your $ should be going toward. (although a different question is whether ohel et al. are really hiring the best people they can get for the least $, or are they hiring someone because he is chayim yankel's brother-in-law and then overpaying him.)

Lion of Zion said...


i would add a corollary to no. 18: feel free not to give to any org. whose mission/leaders/activities/etc. you disagree with (or if they disagree with you), and specifically don't give to any org. that serves to perpetuate the beneficiaries' (and their descendants') reliance on it.

Jake said...

I'll add this suggestion. Check out the street addresses and phone numbers of any charity you are considering donating to to make sure they are legitimate. Also, don't donate to a tzedaka that gives only a PO Box as an address. There's no way of knowing where that money is going to end up. We got a request over yom tov from the American Friends of some institution in Israel with only a PO Box as an address. My parents tossed it. Legit organizations should at least give you a real place to contact if your check doesn't get cashed.

ProfK said...

There's nothing like success to breed acceptance and imitation. My personal feeling is that someone with some involvement in their shul needs to push the idea of the Vaad Ha'tzedaka and get it established if only for that shul. Let the shul establish and publish guidelines and recommendations for its shul members. Let the Rav be "encouraged" to speak about the tzedaka organization problem from the pulpit. In short, let's see a working model of a Vaad Ha'tzedaka in action, even if on a small scale. That then becomes something to point to when skeptics say "sure it's a great idea but will it work?"

You're right that there is the personal and the communal aspect of tzedaka, but if the communal aspect is not addressed then the personal becomes harder to address.

Gila said...

Having put in a few years doing accounting for small yeshivas and other similar non-for-profits, a couple suggestions regarding donations to "American Friends Of X Organization"

1) It is not enough to find out what the overhead is for the US organization. That might well be close to zero. The real question is what is going on in the Israeli organization. Check them out! Ask for a copy of their audited financials.

2) If the fundraising is allegedly for a specific goal, consider earmarking the funds to be used for that specific purpose. This obligates the organization to use the funds for that. Otherwise, you run the risk of just effectively paying the US dollar salaries of the various members of the organization.

3) Government oversight of Israeli non-for-profits leaves much to be desired. I cannot tell you how many times I saw checks written out to "cash"...and then cashed by the rosh yeshiva at some check cashing place...and G-d himself probably does not know where the money actually went.

One caveat--bear in mind that I take financial reporting VERY seriously...I am an accountant, after all. It is my job to be so anal. It is possible that the average Yossy is willing to give a bit more trust. Me--if what you are doing is right, you should have no qualms about properly documenting it.