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Hanukah Gelt, Hanukah Guilt

By Arnie Draiman
Op-Ed,; Hanukah 2011

We all know the history of the Maccabees and the story of the oil lasting for 8 days. To many people it is truth, and to many others it is just a story. In religion, it may not be so important to know what came first (the story, the miracle, other 8 day winter holidays, etc.) or how much of it is factual.

In every day life, however, there are situations where we must learn to distinguish between truth and legend. One of them is in giving Tzedakah, the sacred shekels we are entrusted with to distribute to those in need. I have been a Philanthropic Consultant for over 15 years and have helped foundations and private philanthropists give out tens of millions of dollars.

Tradition sometimes is like legend. There are certain organizations which you turn to when you want to give out money. Many are “ol' reliables”, some are newer. Regardless, one must be very careful when giving and know how to distinguish between the real thing, and only a legend.

There is a part of Jewish tradition which teaches that giving Tzedakah to the wrong people or wrong organization is a criminal offense. Tzedakah money is not ours – it is always 'theirs'; the people in need. And so, if you give poorly, to places with high overheads and sloppy accountability, you are depriving the intended recipient of what is rightly theirs. And you haven't really fulfilled the Mitzvah of giving.

My professional mentor, Danny Siegel – lifelong Tzedakah educator, teaches that organizations you give to must have a good person running it, they must be doing good work, they must be doing it efficiently, and they must be doing it effectively. Efficiently means that the non-profit should be spending no more than 10% - 15% of your donations on anything other than program costs. Why? Because obviously, not all organizations are run with volunteers, nor with donated offices and equipment. But, not so obviously, way too many of our organizations have been playing “keeping up with the Jones'”; that is, they need to increase salaries for senior staff (like in the private sector), they need to make themselves large enough so no one would suggest that they aren't relevant anymore, and they become more concerned with everything but the recipients.

Six months ago, I was asked to donate to the Jewish National Fund. I did a quick review of their financial information online – available via and I had many questions concerning their finances; mainly, what appeared to be that they only give out grants totaling about 40% of the money they raise. I asked the person who asked me for the donation for an explanation. I asked others. And I even asked the CEO, who told me very clearly that I was wrong but didn't give me any specifics. I know that the JNF does good work. But alas, six months later, I am without any proper information about their efficiency. And so, until then, I can not give to JNF.

Another troubling example that I recently was asked to review, was the very popular organization Heifer International. And there too, they do good work – they even have a “Tzedakah” page, but I also discovered what appears to be that they give out less than 50% of the money they take in. I have asked them about it, so I will wait for the answers before advising people what to do.

It is not popular to ask questions, possibly exposing the many Jewish and Zionist organizations as just the shells that they have become. It is clear that when you take off all their clothes in public, everyone will see how little flesh there is on their bones. They are not attracting new money, new blood, or new life from the Jews and others for a reason.

Now is the time to start to change. An annual report of executive salaries of Jewish non-profits was just published. Read it, and then demand that senior staff salaries be cut. Demand that the non-profits be goal and program oriented, not just in their mission statement, but on their financial statement as well. Demand that they return to their roots, when they were more efficient and more effective.

The examples are numerous. Please check carefully how your donations are being used, and how much is actually going to what you think it is going for. Demand better. Otherwise, Hanukah “gelt” becomes Hanukah guilt.

For more details, please be in touch: Arnie Draiman -- -- +972--50--515--6776.