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One out of three ain't bad!

[Poke around here if you don't understand the reference in the title.]

Teshuva [repentance] and tefilla [prayer] aren't going to so well this year, or at least not as well as they have in past years. However, I am trying to make up for it with tzedakah. Now that I live in Washington Heights, I can, once again, afford to give a chunk of change to the causes that I care about. In addition to the fact that giving tzedakah (usually translated as "charity," but from the root meaning "justice," because in Judaism, charity is not just a nice thing to do, it is the only just thing to do) is a mitzvah, it is one that I particularly enjoy. I sift through the appeals, toss most of them, and do further research on the ones that make the initial cut, doing my best to make sure that their overhead:services ratio is fairly low. I grew up with tzedakah as a very strong value at home, for which I will always be grateful.

When I first moved to New York in August 2003, and realized that, given my salary and my rent, I was going to have to choose between giving tzedakah and putting food on my table, going to the dentist, buying necessary clothing for work, etc., I was not happy. I thought about downgrading my lifestyle so that I could continue to give tzedakah in the manner to which I had become accustomed in high school and college, when I scrupulously gave 10% of my income away each year. In retrospect, that is part of why I had very little savings after college--I had been using savings from times of plenty (when I worked for a semester during a semester away from college) to give tzedakah during the leaner years (when I was a full-time student with a part-time work-study job). If I had thought more about it at the time, I might have done differently. Conversations with friends/mentors convinced me that it is no mitzvah to give so much tzedakah that you put yourself into a precarious situation financially, nor is it a mitzvah to downgrade your own by all accounts modest lifestyle to be able to give tzedakah. That is, if I was doing my best to live with in my means, I shouldn't feel like I had to impoverish myself (say, by eating only rice and beans, or never going to a movie, or moving into a shoebox-sized room) to give the recommended amount of tzedakah.

Thus, for the past four years, whenever I found myself with extra money, I put some into savings and gave the rest to tzedakah. At first I thought I might be able to at least give 5%, but that was actually impossible, too. So I gave what I could, when I could. I always gave a little bit more before Rosh Hashanah and Pesach, and if someone made a personal appeal to me and it wasn't on the street or in a subway, I gave a little extra then, too. (I don't usually feel that it's safe to open my wallet in the subway or on the street. I have given food to people when they've asked for money and I've had food on me to give. Once I even went up to the apartment, heated up some leftovers for someone, and brought them down to her on my street corner. So I'm not totally heartless.)

Now, however, that I pay much less rent, I am finally, once again, able to give without impoverishing myself. And, give I did. I write this not to brag about my philanthropy, but to raise some issues with small-time donors such as myself, and to share the names of charitable organizations of which I am particularly fond in the hopes that some of you might support them, too. (I rarely give more than $54 at a shot, and most of my donations are for $18.)

This will hopefully be the topic of an entirely different post, but, first, I joined a shul at the full requested price (which was half off for new members) for the first time in my life yesterday. I gave to local, specifically Jewish, organizations, including: Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, UJA-Federation of NY, and the local Hebrew Free Loan Society. (I give more money to fewer organizations in this case.) I don't think that this is as critical, but I also give to the Drisha Institute, which I love and which gave me a possibly-life-altering scholarship for the High School Program in 1997. Boston isn't local, but it's still local to my heart, so I always give something to the Yad Chessed Charity Fund, which does tremendous work in the Jewish community of Boston with very little overhead (which they raise separately--100% of donations go straight to poor people, many in the form of interest-free loans, which they repay and are distributed again). It was started by a close family friend and is proof-positive that you can change the world even if you have a full-time job in computers, a wife, and two kids.

Then I gave to my usual general-New York City charities (which, aside from being the right thing to do halachically, are the only way I feel I can legitimately and without too much guilt not respond to requests on the street): City Harvest, Urban Justice Center, Sanctuary for Families, Inc., Coalition for the Homeless, Citymeals-on-Wheels, Dress for Success, and the American Red Cross in Greater New York. Less locally, I give to: Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Table to Table (through P.E.F. Endowment Funds, they do food rescue and redistribution in Israel), Miklat-Bat Melech (shelter for religious women and children in Israel), the American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and Trickle Up (which gives micro-loans to people in developing countries to help them start their own business so they can become self-supporting).

(I gave to all of these through Network for Good, which I highly recommend. If you're giving a lot at once, as I did, you can pay directly through your bank and the fee is then minimal. And I also give to some random shuls and cultural/educational institutions and the Central Park Conservancy, but I'm not 100% sure I think of those donations as tzedakah in quite the same way.)

Here's my question, and one reason I wanted to blog about this: Is this an intelligent way to donate my not-so-substantial funds? I love the work that all of these organizations do, but would I be better off giving all this money to, say, three organizations instead of seventeen? Say, one Jewish in New York, one Jewish in Israel, and one general in New York? Is it silly to make seventeen different organizations enter my information, deal with my electronic donation however that happens (as automatically as possible, I hope), and send me a letter at the end of the year?

On a related note (also about economies of scale), is it more efficient to give to large grant-making organizations, such as the UJA-Federation or Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, or directly to service-providing organizations? I can see reasons for both. Large grant-making organizations should, overall, be more efficient, but by giving to them, I am adding an inefficiency into the system, namely, requiring service-providers to write grant proposals and myriad follow-up reports to get their money. (Having written and read these reports, I know that they are quite time-consuming, but necessary for the grant-providing organization to make sure that their money is going to the right places and not being wasted.)

In some cases, such as with Trickle Up, giving to this grant-giving organization makes sense, since there would be no way for someone in Manhattan to find the poorest of the poor in India, Africa, and South America to provide micro-loans directly. In all cases, there are intermediaries between my money and the recipient, the question is only when do economies of scale make sense and when do they stop making sense? Is it always true that larger organizations are more efficient? (I don't mean every organization, I mean overall, on average.) Don't they have to waste more time holding interminable meetings and dealing with vast reams of paper? Isn't me giving directly to a poor person the most efficient way to give, me giving to three people who go around giving to poor people the next-most efficient way to give, and me giving to a committee of 100 who require grant proposals one of the least-efficient ways to give?

Finally, if I were to give to one environmental organization outside of Israel, which one should I give to? Who does the best work for the money? I am interested in organizations that work to protect wildlife by preserving their habitats, lobby for environmental legislation, and/or actually do the hands-on work of cleaning up polluted areas. I am less interested in having my money go to public awareness campaigns, although those might be necessary as well.

This is perhaps not as well-developed a thought as I would like it to be, but it is after 2 pm on erev Yom Kippur, and I must sign off. May we all merit happy, healthy, solvent, and generous 5768s. Gmar chatima tova!

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I would give more to organizations that you are personally familiar with; i.e. if you have friend who are familiar with the way the org. is run (and of course it is a cause you support) that is a better bet than orgs you know little about. DOn't know if that helps. I lived in the Heights long ago--it was a special place.

PS--sorry for never answering that meme--after thinking it over I didn't feel I had much to add to what I already wrote.
The Nature Conservancy pays people to agree not to build on their land, in environmentally sensitive areas, for example where there are endangered species. They put some kind of legal restriction on the land, so they can't build on it. I know they do this in the United States, I'm not sure if they do it in other countries as well.

When I lived in the US, the main environmental organizations I donated to were the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The EDF had some kind of project, in the Amazon rain forest, to encourage people there to use the land in environmentally sustainable ways, for example by harvesting nuts and fruit, extracting rubber, etc., that would allow them to make a living, so they wouldn't feel the need to chop down trees. This was a long time ago, and I don't know what they are doing now, but it might be worthwhile to check out their web sites. Both the EDF and the NRDC had the philosophy of working with businesses to show them that it would be to their advantage to take environmentally friendly actions, rather than attacking businesses, like some of the more leftist, confrontational, environmental organizations.
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