Cutting Out the Charitable Middleman

By Wendy Belzberg

Published October 24, 2003, issue of October 24, 2003.

I believe it’s a mitzvah to give money to Jewish causes. I get blind solicitations in the mail every day, and I always send checks to charities based in Israel. I also respond to many solicitations from American organizations for Israeli causes with names like “Friends of…” or “American Friends of.…” I know the American organizations get a cut of the money. Do you think my money would be better spent if I concentrated on sending my donations directly to Israel?

— Straight to the source

As neither tact nor diplomacy has ever been my middle name, I see no reason to mince words now. Whenever you make a donation — either in the United States or Israel — it is always important to know how much of your money actually reaches those in need. All charities have overhead costs and operating expenses. As much as 50 cents of every dollar you donate can be eaten up by a charity’s overhead. When I make a donation, I don’t want to be buying staplers and Xerox paper for staff members — no matter how dedicated they may be.

Educate yourself. Here are two Web sites that provide the pertinent information on charitable institutions: National Center for Charitable Statistics (www.nccs.urban.org) and the U.S. Nonprofit Organizations Public Disclosure Regulations Site (www.muridae.com/publicaccess).

As for your specific question, if you want all of your money to go to people and causes in Israel, then any amount that remains in the United States is too much. And by definition some funds will remain. Furthermore, if you want all of your money to be earmarked for Jews, you had best read the fine print. Many Jewish charities in the United States are dedicated to addressing a community’s ills — regardless of religion. That fact can be confusing, given the words “Jewish” or “Israel” in a charity’s name.

There is no dearth of organizations in Israel that are in desperate need of your charity, and I would be happy to provide you with a list.

* * *

My friend and I are hosting a benefit for children with disabilities. She invited her boss for whom she has worked for 12 years and who is a wealthy man. He donated the smallest amount specified on the RSVP card. Frankly, we are both shocked that his donation could be so meager. Is it fair of me to comment? Obviously my friend would not feel comfortable since he is her boss.

Cheapskate challenger

Few people would be willing to make that call. I respect your chutzpah; you are obviously a good friend and one committed to a good cause.

But you are way out of line. There are any number of explanations for this man’s donation: Perhaps he is a generous donor to causes closer to his heart, or he gets hit up for funds daily, or he feels awkward having been solicited by an employee or he is a cheap bastard. There is no graceful way to address any of the above.

It is always easy to spend someone else’s money — particularly when that person is wealthy — or we think he is. But just because we think a wealthy person should be more generous doesn’t mean that the individual does. It is probably wise to keep in mind how we might feel about someone else spending our money. If you want to raise more for a good cause, expand that invitation list. But leave the reply cards to your guests.

Write to “Ask Wendy” at 954 Lexington Avenue #189, New York, N.Y. 10021 or at wendy@forward.com.



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