We have a fairly large mailbox. Every day that mailbox is full. Considering that we pay most of our bills via the Internet, so those are not among the envelopes, who is sending us so much mail? One answer is an easy one: we're frum and those envelopes are coming from frum institutions and organizations asking for money. They come from local groups and individuals and from groups across the country and in Israel. The come, and they come, and they come.
Every family has its own method for handling how they respond to these envelopes. And I'm sure that every family is sometimes puzzled as to how to respond. There are books out there dealing with how to give tzedaka specifically (I know, I edited one last year), but even if you follow the suggested ordering of priorities in giving tzedaka, how do you decide within those categories? And how do you know that what you are reading is a legitimate request? How do you know that the details you are being given are really true? How do you know that an organization is really doing with the money you send what it says it will do? How do you know how much of your money is going towards its intended use? How do you know if an appeal is legitimate or not?
One possible way to check is to go to http://www.charitynavigator.org. If a charity is registered with the IRS/state you can find it there. You can imagine my dismay at finding out that a tzedaka that I had given to for years, that had what seemed to be legitimate leadership and a worthwhile mission, spent 73% of the money donated on its overhead--73%! Only 27 cents was really going to tzedaka work. That's not what I expect when I donate to a tzedaka.
There is a different category of money requests that drive me crazy. These are the letters that begin "_________, a choshuvah Torah scholar is in dire straits. He has the happiness to have a daughter/son engaged but what sorrow that he cannot hope to make a wedding or buy the household necessities." Usually either this scholar or his wife also happen to have a serious disease or medical condition, when there is a spouse. Sometimes they tell me that the kallah/choson is a yossom or yossomah. They have at least 10 children. They have fallen on hard times because the wife (usually) has lost her job or a business has failed. At least one of the other children is special needs. They can't put food on the table, never mind make a wedding. I'm left to draw the conclusion that Torah scholars have some strange genetic failing that leaves them vulnerable to every tzurah possible.
I so would like to be l'chav z'chus, but it's getting harder and harder. I've solved my personal dilemma by donating only to hachnosas kallah organizations that I've checked out and that are legitimate. I've stopped even reading the "personal" appeals. I asked myself how much money was spent on postage and printing up these letters, and how much of a wedding you could buy for that cost. One meshulach from Yisroel was here collecting for his own wedding. Just how much wedding could the cost of his airplane ticket to the US have purchased? Because he was standing in my doorway I gave him a couple of dollars, and then he said the magic words: "It's not enough. We have to buy an apartment, it's not like here."
Needy, for us, is the child c'v injured in a rocket attack or bombing who needs major reconstructive surgery that is not performed in Israel and who needs to come here to have it done. Needy is the family that legitimately works hard and through no laziness or fault of their own cannot put food on the table. Needy are the elderly trying to live on social security who have nothing else. Needy are the special needs children who require costly services that really can bankrupt their families. Needy is a lot of things for us. Producing wedding spectacles is not in our category of needy.
So please Mr. Torah Scholar, read up on that part in the Gemorah where it states that a father is obligated to teach his son a trade. And if your father didn't fulfill his obligation, then get out there and do it yourself. And if you have made the decision to still be sitting and learning when you are at the point of marrying off children, keep in mind that a chasoneh is still perfectly legitimate if it consists of nothing more than a chupah and a meal for 10 men.
A certain amount of overhead is necessary for most charitable organizations. If a mailing goes out then someone has to pay for the postage. Even if someone donates the money to pay for the postage that donation is not being used for chesed purposes. But you are also correct that far too many of the organizations that exist today have excessive overheads. They want to do something worthwhile but have not thought through the business aspects carefully.
There is also too much duplication of organizations. They end up competing with each other and defeating the purpose of their existence. We have reduced our tzedaka giving to only a few organizations that we feel do a good job, but we give them more then if we had to divide that money among thousands of organizations.
Our rav gave a speech a few months ago about tzedaka money and where it should go. His main point was that first you take care of your family and then you take care of the institutions that exist in your community. Only after those institutions have the money they need should money leave a community for other purposes. We've adjusted our tzedaka giving to what he suggested. We don't have millions of dollars to give in tzedaka so any group outside of our community we put a dollar in the envelope. Some have stopped sending to us which is okay too.
Just a few words about overhead vs. program costs. As an accountant who had worked primarily with not for profit org's, I have found that many of these org's do not know how to properly fill out paper work and segregate their costs. Also, much of that segregation is really a judgment call. Hiring a good accountant to guide them could actually increase their overhead. I am not saying that the org's overhead of 73% was necessarily wrong, but it just as well could've been ignorance about financial reporting. As a side note, professionals consider overhead costs of 25-30% normal and reasonable.
I was the volunteer treasurer once for one of the local tzedaka groups. Frankly the books were a mess. I asked my husband, who is an accountant to help me. He couldn't believe how many things were being reported wrong or not reported at all. And he couldn't believe the waste of money for supplies that were being purchased retail instead of wholesale. Through proper bookkeeping and through changing the way the organizztion did business my husband managed to cut their overhead to 22% instead of the 69% it was before.
Suburban wife, there is another answer to having to hire an accountant--get one to give you volunteer hours, or get two. My husband donated his services--and yes, we took a tax deduction, perfectly legal, for his donated hours. The tzedaka got the help it needed without added cost.
I'm puzzled by something else. We donate to the local yeshiva. And then that yeshiva also collects in school for other tzedakas that it donates the money to. And beside these collections it also gives to "worthy causes"sometimes.Anyone else see anything strange in one tzedaka group giving money to another tzedaka group? If I wanted that second group to get the money I would donate it directly.
I just don't understand where all these places get my name and address and phone number from. The places I give to know how to reach me but what about the 100s of other groups? I'm always getting calls now from Israel from tzedaka groups. How do they get my number? If groups here are sharing their lists or selling them I want the ability to opt out.
Allen -- "A certain amount" of overhead is necessary. But does that include fifteen high-quality glossy mailings about ONE event? I'm not exaggerating...
Just to play devil's advocate: not all of the frills are actually paid for with your tzedaka dollars. Some are donated (at least partially -- e.g. someone provides a service gratis and charges the organization cost only) and some are sponsored individually (e.g. Mr. Honoree donates a large amount of money and stipulates that it is to be used for something specific that many others would deem unnecessary -- with his name on it, typically)
Ruchi, it is extremely hard for a not for profit organization to receive services pro bono. What you and your husband did was very admirable, but most ppl, especially those walking into a fiscal mess, want to be paid. Because the time spent on fixing the messes is going to be enourmous and it is NOT tax deductable. (BTW, I don't live in suburbs...)
Most of this post is devoted to the mailbox overflowing with tzedokoh appeals phenomenon (there are parallel phone and e-mail phenomenons as well).
Though it is possible that Prof. K. is getting more of this type of mail than others, I think that many struggle with it.
It is widespread and has been brought about by adoption of 'modern' marketing tactics by certain organizations/tzedokos and the businesses that service them (yes, there is is an industry of frum marketers who advise and direct them, you can often see their names on the sides of advertisements for these charities).
The buying and selling (and/or exchanging) of mailing lists, combined with the relative ease and inexpensiveness of mass-mailings (thanks to improved technology, which has enabled automation of tasks, such as printing and addressing, as well as the goodness of the US government/USPS which gives special discount to non-profits/charities and bulk mail), along with the goodness of our community, have caused this phenomenon to explode in recent years. It has succeeded to the point that it is now a threat to itself because people have had more than enough of it.
Let us have more local control of things, let the marketers and far-away causes seek better and more closer to home solutions, instead of all converging on a few areas.
Self-sufficiency and not being a burden on others are virtues in our faith. Why are they not stressed and admired more these days?
"I just don't understand where all these places get my name and address and phone number from."
don't be so naive. they sell your information to each other the same way general direct-marketing advertisers do.
and in addition to name, number, address and other basics, they also have other information to help them maximize returns. one brooklyn telemarketing service, for example, separates ashkenazim from sephardim (and adjusts the minimum suggseted donation accordingly)
I'm sorry subwife, the misnaming was my reading too quickly. You are right that a lot of people think of it as being easier just to write a check then to volunteer their services, but there are plenty of people who don't have all that much money but do have expertise that could be valuable to an organization.
Checked with my husband and the IRS does allow a charity donation credit for services donated, just not every service. Those who are paid for specific services, like a tax filing or writing up a will, can deduct the cost of the service when they donate that service to an organization. He said it also has something to do with people who have a set hourly fee for their services, again like lawyers or accountants. Anyway he said to check it out.
Ruchi, I actually checked with IRS. Unless you have other information available to you (I would gladly welcome the source), see publication 526, which explicitly states that volunteer services are NOT deductable on your personal tax return. Only very few expenses incurred while volunteering, such as travel.
Ruchi, Source please. AFAIK the IRS disallows deductions for services donated with the exception of mileage for travel which is is a lower mileage rate than the standard.
Just to clarify, travel is not the only expense one can deduct if one had donated personal services to the organization. There are others as well (with very strict criteria to allow deduction), but in 75% of situations, it would only be travel.
For all those interested what is and isn't deductable on personal tax returns as a charitable contribution, here's the link:
Can a business donate services and take a corporate deduction?
Hmm, my gut feeling says no. Or at least "no" in terms of bottom line, i.e. you either recognize revenue for services performed (but for which you didn't get paid) and get to take deduction, or you don't report revenue and don't get to take deduction either. But I am not 100% sure. And currently have to time to investigate. maybe, someone else knows.
Here is an explicit IRS link within publication 526 which clearly states that ones time or services are NOT deductible -
I suggest you file an amended tax return as soon as possible!
I am also appalled at the misuse of funds by some of these non-profits. I read that Oorah's summer camp installed a "$200,000 system of 97 high-intensity lights last summer on 15 towers, each 60 feet high, on several camp recreational fields"
WTF? Are they crazy? The money that I and thousands of other people had donated to them over the years was supposed to go toward direct kiruv efforts. It enrages me that my hard earned dollars were wasted this way.
I also wonder where all the money is coming from for those letters and postage that ask for money for individuals who are poor Torah scholars. Why not just give the money directly to that person if you know them and believe that they are worthy recipients? I also draw the line with the requests for the weddings, and you are right that some of the letters sound like bad scripts for soap operas.
I worked as a professional fund raiser for non profits for many years. The rule of thumb for mass mailings is that a return of 5% was considered a highly successful mailing--many got less. For some organizations the cost of that letter was one dollar and more, including all the costs for materials and postage and office handling.(Non profits pay postage at about 60% of regular postage costs and most include a postage paid envelope for the donation.) Mail out 1000 letters and get back that great 5% and you only have 50 people responding. Each one would have to give you a minimum of $20 just to meet your expenses. Even if everyone would send in $36 that would only give you 800 in profit to use for your organization's projects against 2000 in expenses. A poor targeting of potential donors and repeat mailings for years where the recipient has never donated eat into available money. Poor timing of mailings is also a problem for many organizations. Charity organizations need to get more savvy about how to raise funds. They need to take better advantage of today's technology to cut down on expenses. When times are economically tough organizations cannot afford to make mistakes in their fund raising appeals.
Debra - I second that. Most successful not for profits are operated as for profit businesses. They still provide public service, but do their best to cut down on costs and increase efficiency everywhere, fund raising included.
The prof's mailbox sounds like ours used to be. The real mail got buried by all the appeals to donate. We sat down and made a list of which organizations and charities we wanted to support. We made up a calendar of when each group would get money from us. And then I went to the trouble of calling all the others that I could and telling them to remove me from their lists. Those that didn't comply we marked the letters addressee unknown and returned them. We don't do phone donations and we don't give to strangers who show up at our door. The organizations that we do support get more from us this way and they know that they can count on our support. And yes as was commented by someone above, our community comes first, our schools and our shuls and our bikur cholim and our hatzalah and the few other organizations that are local. We could put a dollar in every envelope but as Debra said above that dollar barely covers the expenses and there is nothing for the tzedaka. This works for us.
"We could put a dollar in every envelope but as Debra said above that dollar barely covers the expenses and there is nothing for the tzedaka."
Aviva -- I'm not criticizing your system; I appreciate the fact that you've found a way to deal with the appeals without reducing your tzedaka.
I just want to raise the point that the din is that it is better to give smaller amounts to more people than to give larger amounts to fewer. This is to help one become a more generous person through repeated action. The attitude reflected above is not in sync with that. You don't need to worry about "covering their expenses" -- even a $10k check will not do that. Our job is to give tzedakah, and if HaShem decrees on the recipient that they will have enough, then they will.
basmelech or anyone who knows, care to give the source for the "din?" I don't remember learning it this way but I will look it up if you can give a source for it.
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