Charitable giving | When giving tzedakah, think like a philanthropist

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The value of tzedakah (charity) is a central one among Jews of all denominations. In Numbers 26:12, the Torah famously mandates Jews to donate 10 percent of their crops to the poor. And later sources suggest 10 percent as the baseline, encouraging as much as 20 percent of one’s income as an ideal allocation of one’s philanthropic dollars.

Rachel Cyrulnik

This number seems quite ambitious when compared with annual giving figures in the United States. The most recent annual survey of philanthropy, Giving USA, reported that Americans gave just 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product to charity last year, a number that has remained fairly constant for four decades.

Even if Jews have not taken to donating the full 10 percent baseline, they are still above the national average. Indeed, Connected to Give, a study conducted earlier this year to offer insights into Jewish giving patterns, found that more Jews gave than non-Jews, and that the median giving rate — $1,200 — was double that of non-Jews.

And yet, despite our comparatively higher levels of giving, most of us don’t consider ourselves philanthropists. And Jewish law — notably Maimonides’ eight levels of charity — encourages us to think strategically about how we give.

Here is my condensed Philanthropy 101, designed to help you start thinking like a philanthropist to best allocate your tzedakah dollars this season and beyond:

1. Understand why you give

Think about your motivation for giving. Do you give out of a sense of obligation? An altruistic desire to help others? To be seen in a certain light? Perhaps your giving is spurred by a combination of factors.

General megatrends in philanthropy indicate a shift from organizational giving that is motivated by responsibility to individual, project-based giving that seeks impact. Jewishly engaged NextGen donors are a curious hybrid, sharing with previous generations the legacy of mandatory giving but valuing the innovative, efficient and unconventional efforts of their peers to achieve impact. Interesting practical ramifications of these motivational factors are already playing out in the types of allocations young philanthropists make.

2. Be proactive

We are extremely fortunate to live in a Jewish community that is robust with organizations that recognize and meet important needs. Being on the receiving end of requests from every direction puts donors in a reactive position with respect to their giving. Paradoxically, when organizations do their jobs well by making it so easy for donors to give, less-than-perfect shidduchim (partnerships) result. Donors become prone to give willy-nilly to whomever gets to them first or to be added to the donor list where social constructs expect their names to appear. Of course, organizations must continue to fundraise; their missions depend on it. But both organizations and individuals alike need to do a better job of partnering, based on motivations and common interests, to get beyond superficial affiliation to meaningful engagement.

3. Know your opportunity costs

Philanthropists recognize the tradeoffs they make when they make a significant investment in one particular area. Consider those who give primarily to Jewish causes. They are forgoing the opportunity to contribute to universal efforts. Those who give primarily to Israel-based causes sacrifice the opportunity to impact domestic needs.

Likewise, focusing on communal institutions comes at the expense of supporting national issues. And if a philanthropist does not want to make any of these tradeoffs and gives to all of the above, his or her giving power will be significantly diminished by dispersing resources thinly among dozens of causes.

These decisions are not easy. In addition to considering the areas of greatest need, sophisticated philanthropists routinely think about how they can add the most value. Where will their dollars make the most difference? Are there areas that they deem important that others are not prioritizing? Is this an opportunity to leverage another’s

giving? A chance to bring others on board by setting an example with a lead gift?

Philanthropists maintain flexibility so they can shift their funding priorities when circumstances change.

4. Low administrative cost is not necessarily a good thing

Organizations are accountable to their contributors and their performance should be measured. But philanthropists should care about measuring impact — not measuring overhead.

Much has been written about how tolerance for investment in staff and innovation in the business world has gotten lost in translation when applied to nonprofits. Somehow, intelligent people look at nonprofit organizations and think that they should be funneling virtually 100 percent of revenue directly to the client population — and that failure to meet that objective is a mark of an inefficient organization, unworthy of one’s dollars. But without human capital, technology and training, organizations simply cannot execute effective planning, implementation and evaluation, and consequently, cannot successfully fulfill their missions. Let’s not make the mistake of penalizing organizations that take this responsibility seriously.

5. Be an educated contributor

To make well-informed decisions, keep yourself apprised of news in your philanthropic areas of interest, read up on trends in philanthropy and meet face-to-face with the organizations you support. As a donor or a lay leader, ask questions, request information on outcomes, and make suggestions — the best relationships between causes and donors are partnerships.

One of the best-known verses in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy we read recently is about the ability of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah to reverse a negative decree. Repentance and prayer are not just about the actions of apologizing or reciting words — performing those actions are relatively easy. The avodah sh’balev — the work of the heart — is about self-introspection, discipline and proactivity; these prerequisites to the aforementioned activities are what transform a person, making her or him worthy of a softened decree. Applying these same attributes to your giving will not only create positive outcomes in the world, it may even contribute to your self-improvement.

Rachel Cyrulnik is a senior consultant for the Hirsh Consulting Group and director of Strategic Development at Altruicity Inc. This essay originally appeared in the New York Jewish Week.