It should be no secret that not everyone who solicits tzedaka is legitimate. After all, cheating has been around since the first rule was invented. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible for the average person to know if the one soliciting a handout or donation is legitimate or a faker.
This really is a problem, too. Unlike most mitzvos, the pure intention to give tzedaka counts for nothing whatsoever if the recipient is not legitimate; you don’t get any credit just for trying or for having your heart in the right place. Indeed, the prophet Yirmiya prayed for his antagonists to stumble across fakers when they sought to give tzedaka so that they should not receive merits (Bava Basra 9A).
There are a variety of responses to the problem of fakers. Some people take what seems to be the most convenient approach and just give something to everyone who asks. This is extremely problematic. For one thing, if they want this money to count towards their ma’aser (tithe), the recipient needs to be legitimate. Otherwise, as noted, they might as well flush the money down the drain.
But even if the money they give is beyond the minimum requirement of tzedaka, giving to those who are not legitimate takes away from those who really deserve it and also strengthens those who are unscrupulous, which only perpetuates the problem for everyone. Generally speaking, we have the privilege to distribute our tzedaka dollars however we wish (though certain recipients and causes do take precedence over others). Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to the community and our many needy brethren to see to it that our tzedaka dollars aren’t wasted. Every dollar given to a faker is one less dollar that is available to someone who deserves it. Giving to everyone who solicits guarantees that each individual will receive less and that a substantial amount of money will be lost to fakers.
Some rationalize that it’s worth it to give money to fakers just so their own children will learn to be charitable. Personally, I believe it is better to educate our children to be responsibly charitable, to be discerning with how they distribute their tzedaka dollars. Additionally, we do them no favor by sheltering them from the harsh reality that plenty of people who come along asking for our money should not be given it. Better for children to be educated by their parents in a responsible and sensitive way than to discover this the hard way later on, which is more likely to turn them off to the idea of giving altogether.
It is unmistakable that Hashem expects us to perform due diligence to ensure that our tzedaka dollars are distributed to worthy recipients, and that this is a vital component of the mitzvah itself. It is hard to fathom another explanation for why credit for this mitzvah hinges entirely on the result, with no brownie points given to one whose intentions are good but who gives to someone who should not be collecting. The convenient approach of giving to everyone who asks for money is clearly not the most desirable approach. Since we live in an age dominated by chumros and a professed yearning to perform mitzvos in the most desirable fashion, we should expect people to be strict in this regard and take great care to insure that none of their tzedaka money is wasted.
On a communal level there has been little organized effort to deal with this dilemma. All that comes to mind is the letters that some collectors wave at people, which supposedly certify them as legitimate takers of tzedaka. While it is certainly a step in the right direction to have a reputable individual certify collectors, this measure also falls far short of an effective solution. First off, most people do not read the letters, and for several good reasons: they don’t have the time, it is uncomfortable for both them and the collector (especially if the decision is not to give), and the letters are often written in Hebrew, which not everyone can read fluently.
Furthermore, the letter is only as reputable as its source. Do you really believe all that laminated stationary is any more legitimate than some of the collectors carrying it? Do you think people would be heinous enough to take tzedaka money that they don’t deserve, but wouldn’t go so far as to produce a sham certification? It’s kind of like believing that Muslims who take joy in murdering people would never, ever go back on an agreement, to the extent that some people are genuinely shocked every time this happens. Wake up and smell the world, people. It stinks.
Unscrupulous collectors can count on the fact that most people feel better about seeing a letter, but almost no one bothers to read it, and surely no one is going to research its source. Consequently, all the trouble that legitimate collectors go through to procure certification is neutralized by the fact that this measure fails to reassure those who are rightfully skeptical or weed out the collectors of ill repute.
My personal system of giving tzedaka is to immediately place 10% of all my post-tax earnings into a tzedaka fund, which I carefully distribute according to the following guidelines:
I almost never give a penny to collectors in shul or on the streets, regardless of whether they look super frum or super shabby. I especially don’t give to collectors who travel about to various Jewish communities in clown cars driven by professionals who know where the best action is and take a significant cut of the profits. Frankly, I’m surprised anyone gives them money. There is a fine line between being charitable and being played for a fool.
I realize that some collectors in shul and on the streets are perfectly legitimate and that I am passing up the opportunity to help them in favor of helping others. So be it. I can’t help everyone, and I will not pay the fakers just so that I can also help some of the legitimate collectors who share their territory.
I don’t give to people who are fully capable of doing more to help themselves but simply choose not to — who would turn down a lucrative employment opportunity in favor of continuing to shnorr. This includes people who believe it is their God-given right to learn Torah all day (except when they are soliciting money from others, of course), and that it is everyone else’s obligation to support them.
Nothing doing. When I am done supporting myself I would rather spend my remaining time engaged in my own Torah pursuits than continuing to work on behalf of others who don’t work at all. Frankly, I think some of these people should consider supporting me so I can free up some more time in my own schedule. I can learn well, too.
Besides, it behooves us to give priority to those who are incapable of supporting themselves over those who fancy themselves gedolim in training. Give me the orphan, the widow, the elderly, the ailing, and those whose parnassa has taken a turn for the worse. Spare me the strapping bochurim who can’t afford to pay for their fancy wedding and posh new apartment.
I don’t give to collectors who have an attitude. Surprisingly, quite a few solicitors have a great deal chutzpa and disrespect for their environment. I have seen collectors disturb the davening of individuals and groups. I have seen collectors insult those who decline to offer them money. I have even seen collectors refuse handouts that they believe are too small for them!
I certainly don’t expect poor people to ever forego the basic dignity that every tzelem Elokim bears title to. Nevertheless, to me nothing better advertises that someone is a faker than an attitude problem. There is nothing more humiliating to a human being than having to rely on others and beg for money. Those who clearly feel no shame, who in fact exhibit a sort of hubris and superiority complex, or who see collecting as a perfectly legitimate means of supporting oneself indefinitely, are very likely charlatans seeking to exploit the generosity of others.
- I don’t give to people who walk around flashing large wads of bills. Business seems to be quite good for them without my contributions.
- I don’t give to collectors who mumble mantras like “Shabbos, Shabbos” six days a week or seem to have some other well-rehearsed routine. If it seems like an act, I’m going to suspect that it is and err on the side of caution. I view my tzedaka dollars as akin to hekdesh, and therefore will not give to anyone who raises my doubts when there are so many potential recipients who are legitimate without any doubt. Why be machmir on turning down someone who just might really be legitimate when doing so is being meikel on giving the maximum to those who certainly are legitimate?
- I rarely give to organizations. I certainly do not give to organizations that appear perfectly content to spend 99 cents to raise a dollar. All those large advertisements and flashy newspaper inserts cost quite a bit of money even with a non-profit discount. The more they promote themselves, the more skeptical I become. And if they promise miraculous salvation for all those who donate to them, the game is over right then and there.
I understand that there’s a great deal of competition out there for our tzedaka dollars, and well-meaning organizations need to spend some money to get their message out. However, the situation has gotten completely out of hand. Every penny of tzedaka that an organization receives should be treated like hekdesh, and spent only with prudence and careful deliberation. Sometimes I wonder if organizations are so concerned with public relations and raising money that they lose sight of their real mission.
Our non-profit organizations should be completely transparent and accountable for how they spend their (our) money. I’d much rather distribute all my tzedaka dollars directly to a worthy recipient than have an organization spend a large chunk of it to pay overhead and solicit the next donor to do the same. Consequently, I never give money to an organization unless I identify with their purpose and have a clear idea about what they will do with my tzedaka dollars. Don’t you want to know how your tzedaka dollars are being spent?
I can’t help but be dismayed by all the tzedaka money that is surely being doled out irresponsibly and feel genuine heartache for the truly needy who fall under suspicion or otherwise find it difficult to collect what they deserve. There are enough smart and caring Jews among us that we should be able to organize a more effective and reliable system for distributing tzedaka to those who deserve it and turning away those who don’t.
The first step is for every individual to set up a personal set of guidelines for giving tzedaka that takes the various issues into account (feel free to borrow from my guidelines if they resonate with you). To fulfill this mitzvah to the highest degree, we need to put serious thought into it, and not simply react when someone asks us for money. One’s system should be flexible to allow for extraordinary circumstances (setting up a personal fund is ideal for this), but still have clear guidelines that are consistently followed.
Next we need to insist that our organizations become more transparent and more responsible with how they spend communal funds. Organizations will claim that unless they run fancy dinners and expensive events that turn a profit they will not be able to survive. I truly believe that people are eager to give money to a cause that they can identify with, and do not need to be treated first to a night of dinner and entertainment. The first $100 that each person donates shouldn’t go to pay a caterer.
The glitzy events with high overhead should be eliminated from the non-profit world. Non-profits should devote their manpower and resources entirely to their mission and stay out of the entertainment industry. In the non-Jewish world, businesses often create charities. In the Jewish world, charities create, or even begin to resemble businesses. This needs to change.
Finally, I think the community is capable of appointing reputable and sensitive individuals to serve as gabbai tzedaka, like we used to have. These people could serve as liaisons between donors large and small and recipients of tzedaka. They would be charged with performing due diligence to ensure the legitimacy of each case and maintaining a relationship with the recipient to see both that their needs are met and that the system is not abused. The gabbai tzedaka would keep records of every penny that goes in and out, and would report to community rabbonim and other leaders to ensure transparency and reliability. These gabbai tzedaka would serve as unpaid volunteers on a part-time basis, and would reap great rewards for facilitating a higher performance of this most vital mitzvah.
This organized network of gabbai tzedaka would also make public the database of individual and communal causes that they are collecting for (individual identities would be confidential, of course), and donors could earmark their tzedaka dollars for a specific case number or category of need. In other words, if you really want to help that bochur pay for his new apartment, you would have the choice, and if that’s not your thing, you would have plenty of other pre-screened options. There are web sites devoted to this type of thing, but not yet on a grand scale.
It might sound complicated, but considering the powerful technology that is at our fingertips it is quite plausible for such a system to be organized in a matter of weeks. As an added bonus, fundraisers would be able to spend less time and money shlepping all over the world, and neither the donor nor the recipient would need to know one another — which constitutes one of the highest levels of tzedaka.
The process of giving tzedaka could easily be more streamlined, more efficient, more dignified, and more reliable. I hope the community will take these suggestions seriously to improve the process for everyone.