Charity and the Business of Giving Tzedekah
Introduction to Tzedekah
The Torah commands us to give Tzedekah. It’s translated as ‘charity’ but the root of the word, ‘tzedek’ really means that it’s the right thing to do. You aren’t giving just to help someone, you’re giving because the money belongs to the poor person. It was just given to you, to give you the opportunity to pass it on. The more you give, the more you become a conduit to do so.
That being said, money isn’t the only way to give. The other way is to give of your time or simply listen to a person who is in need. If you give 10% of your money, then shouldn’t it follows that you should also give 10% of your time? It won’t take away from your time either, as doing these things gives you a long life. I suppose I need a source for that, but I don’t have one readily available.
Tzedekah Collectors at Your Door
In a Jewish community, try giving someone who knocks at your door $50. Next thing you know, it will be very easy to spend your time talking to poor people. Why? Well, as it turns out from a recent article in Mishpacha Magazine, 1/3 typically goes to the driver. He’s going to wisely spend his time taking poor people to those houses that give the most money. Your time is his money. Personally, I’ve had this happen to me and I’d rather not support the taxi driver. On top of this, the cost of the flight goes to the travel agent who has “invested” in the oni on the opposite end. He gets paid only after the poor person has returned with the dough. Add on to this the extra cost of food from eateries, lost hours of learning Torah, and detriment to health from the travel and time zone adjustments, and it’s quite some cost that your money is buying. Meanwhile, the collector’s bed at home goes to waste while your donation supports his temporary bed abroad. (Worse yet, some of those at your door collecting are nothing more than scam artists. If you take time to try and decipher the teudah [certification], you’d also better give him a decent amount of money. If you don’t, it’s considering an insult to spend too much time reviewing his papers and then not give a lot of money!) This is the price that both you, the donor, and he, the collector must pay for that personal connection.
Efficient Tzedekah Investing Has No Personal Touch
One one side, it is very easy to find the expense ratio of non-profits. An organization that I give to, American Friends of Yad Eliezer gives directly to the poor in Israel. Charity Navigator gives them five stars – 96.8% of their funds go to the poor. If you give $100, you can expect upwards of $90 to reach aniyim [poor people]. That’s a pretty good tzedekah investment! However, I once asked them if I could “adopt a family” anonymously or something of that sort. Nope. This is much less efficient than simply buying, say, mass amounts of chickens and distributing them. When I give to Yad Eliezer, I have no idea which chickens I bought or who got them. Yes, this is quite a high form of tzdekah, but there’s no feeling in it.
What if We Used Technology to Increase the ROI for Personal Tzedekah Giving?
It seems to me that with technology, there is a middle road between the low return “personal connection” and high return “faceless giving”. Let’s borrowing the idea from “Kickstarter” and other websites used to raise funds for needy projects. A person can create a profile and a video and explain why they need funds. imagine a video of mechanah [teacher] showing the kids in his yeshiva and his recent paycheck . . . of a few hundred dollars for the month and six months behind. If Individual aniyum [poor people] could be verified by an organization right in Yerushalim [Jerusalem] or B’Nai Brak and tell their stories on a website, we could have some of that personal connection. In addition to being more dignified than having to go door to door begging, a certain amount of anonymity could be provided. Meanwhile, after finding the office of the tzedekah in Yerushalim and spending maybe a few hours gathering paperwork and creating a short video of his family, yeshiva, and so forth, he gets to go to sleep in his own bed next to his wife. Unless you see the same rented kids and wife in a lot of videos, chances are much greater that you’re really giving to a person in need than the guy who knocks at your door. You have no idea who he is and have little to no time to check him out.
After start-up expenses, givers could easily see an 80% or 85% return on investment while having something closer to the one to one relationship with the person at your door. This is comparable to the percentage for the anonymous chicken that you buy someone en masse, but with a personal touch.
I, for one, would be interested in helping get such a project get off the ground. Until then, unless I know you, at my door expect $1 or $2. The highest return on investment seems to be the impersonal way . . . for now.
“… but there’s no feeling in it.” Maybe you’re looking for the wrong feeling? When I miss the personal touch, it’s usually because I want some recognition.