Reprinted with permission of the author. The full responsum (a rabbinic reply to a question of law), including footnotes not reprinted here, appears in Responsa in a Moment, published by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and is available at its “Responsa for Today” website.
Some additional questions to ponder: Do most individuals have the time to check out the accountability of every one who solicits? The rabbis of antiquity did not live in days of mass mailings and telemarketing. Do these changes require a re-evaluation of some of the rabbinic norms and rulings?
[Many sources deal] with individuals who ask for money. What of organizations that today do most of their solicitation through pushkes [boxes for charitable contributions] or via the mail? How can we determine their legitimacy? The halakhah [Jewish law] provides two clear criteria: The trustworthiness of the gabbai or collector—today that means the person who runs the charity—and the financial records of the organization.
The Talmud states: A person should not give a penny to the communal charity purse unless it is under the supervision of a person [as honest as] Rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon (Bava Batra 10b, Avodah Zarah 17b).
Rabbi Hananyah was chosen as the paradigm because once, when the funds of two different charities became confused, he made up the difference from his own pocket (Avodah Zarah ibid.). The standard codes of Jewish law therefore rule that “a person should only give to a charity fund if he knows that the overseer is trustworthy and wise and knows how to manage it properly.” In most cases, if the person running the organization is trustworthy, then the organization is trustworthy. People trust Yad Sarah in Jerusalem because they trust Uri Lupoliansky. People trust Hadassah because they trust the women who run it. People trust the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation because they trust Jerry Lewis.
As for financial records, the Talmud states: “One does not check the records of tzedakah collectors… as it is written [regarding the treasurers of the Temple]: ‘for they do their work in good faith’ “ (II Kings 12:16) (Bava Batra 9a). Maimonides (9:11) and Rabbi Joseph Karo (YD 257:2) simply quote the Talmud. But Rabbi Jacob ben Asher and Rabbi Moshe Isserles have a different approach (Tur and Shulhan Arukh YD, ibid.):
One does not need to investigate honest collectors. But in order that they be “clean before the Lord and before Israel” (Numbers 32:22), it is good for them to give an accounting.
They knew what many tzedakah experts stress: Accountability leads to honesty and efficiency. It is hard to cheat when everyone has access to the facts and figures. It is hard to waste money on overhead, when potential donors know exactly how much is being spent on furniture, staff and brochures.
Thus, according to the halakhah, when you see a pushke or receive a mail solicitation, your first question should be: Do I trust the person running the organization? If you do not know the gabbai or cannot find out enough about him, you should request a copy of the budget in order to check the group’s honesty and wastefulness.
In conclusion, giving tzedakah is good, but giving wisely is even better. As tzedakah expert Danny Siegel writes:
You are not doing this out of a sense of cynicism. You are protecting your tzedakah dollars, making them stretch as far as they can go to worthy causes… On the one hand, you do not want to give to wasteful organizations… On the other hand, you would not want to withhold useful, perhaps critical, tzedakah money from people who are laboring with love and care to make good things happen in this world.
Pronounced: GAH-bye, Origin: Aramaic, literally “tax collector,” but today means someone who assists with the Torah reading in synagogue.The gabbai usually determines who will be called up to the Torah for an aliyah and also assists with other aspects of coordinating worship.
Pronounced: moe-SHEH, Origin: Hebrew, Moses, whom God chooses to lead the Jews out of Egypt.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronounced: tzuh-DAH-kuh, Origin: Hebrew, from the Hebrew root for justice, charitable giving.