I want to be smart in my charitable giving. Can you help?

Dear Rabbi and Susan,

I have a question for you and I hope you can guide me through with ancient wisdom.

Let’s say that  I have decided to donate  a certain portion of my income to charitable causes… So one day while standing in the pharmacy I see a person in need to get medicines for $50. Would I be a better human being if I decide to use my 50 dollars helping one individual that I come across in person or by sending my 50 dollars to an overseas region where I could potentially help 50 people to get something like sandals or penicillin?

What is your insight into this?

Juan Manuel M.

Dear Juan Manuel,

We love this question for so many reasons. First of all, we think highly of our readers/listeners and your question provides a wonderful example of why we are correct to do so. Not only do you want to be charitable, which is a good thing in and of itself, but you want to do so in the smartest way. Rather than simply trusting your emotions or giving just in order to feel virtuous, you want to ensure that you are actually helping the most you can.

Let’s make a case for each of your choices. There is something wonderful about a person-to-person connection.  Seeing someone in need and helping them directly and immediately is tremendous. The individual feels the concern of another human being and the knowledge that you made an impact on someone’s life has a positive effect on you, most likely making you more prone to give again. In the example you gave, you even know that the money is not going to support a drug habit or to buy liquor. You are providing someone with needed medicine. Furthermore, you are not burdening your gift with the administrative overhead which is an inevitable part of organizational charity.

On the other hand, perhaps there is an organization that works towards eradicating the disease from which this person suffers. Your money might help to save thousands from needing the medicine in the first place. Alternatively, perhaps a ministry not only helps to provide medicine but also provides emotional and spiritual support so that the person in front of you will manage his life better. A healthier lifestyle could mean that he won’t even need as much medicine as before.

There is, of course, another side. It is possible that the person in front of you needing medicine cannot afford to pay for it because he gambles his earnings away or spends it on alcohol or drugs. Organized charities can be badly or fraudulently run so that your money does not help those in need. In other words, both opportunities for giving can be wonderful or wasteful.

What would we do?  In general, we try to follow the Biblically-based rule that those closest to us have the first claim on our discretionary charity dollars.  Family before strangers, our community before remote communities, etc.  However, we don’t like turning anyone down entirely so we make small gifts in many circumstances to personal pleas of those we do not know. If it’s a personal case where we do know the details or are assured by someone we trust that the money is truly needed, we respond as generously as we can. We also take the time to vet organizations. (Two organizations that can be  helpful are https://www.charitywatch.org/, https://www.charitynavigator.org/)

Another step is to choose some organizations whose missions resonate with you and support them on a regular basis. You still need to keep your eyes open. It hurts us terribly when we hear that people donate to anti-Biblical, Leftist groups because they see the word Jewish or Christian or Liberty in the name and assume it is a good group or because 25 years ago it was doing good work.

In the specific circumstance you describe, if you felt reasonably certain that the person in need was someone who was doing his best to help himself, you should help him, though not necessarily with all your available resources or to the full extent of his need.  Helping doesn’t necessarily mean providing a complete solution. This approach allows you to help the needy person God placed in your path, while also retaining larger reserves to help organizations with whose mission you resonate.

Finally, it is worth always thinking of the possible unintended consequences of giving money in the wrong way or in the wrong place.  For instance, it is possible to give money to someone in a way that destroys his dignity.  What he loses is probably worth more than what he got.  Or one might send clothing to a village in Africa and inadvertently destroy the local clothing manufacturing economy, as has indeed happened.  You are right to give much thought to your charitable activities. Being a wise person, including in the area of giving, takes active and continuous effort. 

With your loving care, you help to make the world a better place and we’re proud to have you as a reader. 

Thanks for caring,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

17 thoughts on “I want to be smart in my charitable giving. Can you help?”

  1. Could you note the portions in scripture that give the Biblically-based rule: Family before strangers, our community before remote communities, etc? I understand family first, but why is local higher in priority that others?

  2. Very good answer. An additional possibility is, if possible, to continue to make your regular charitable gifts, and welcome opportunities to help others when God puts them in front if us. I recognize not everyone has the financial ability to do both, but for many of us, finding $20 or $50 when a situation presents itself is not onerous. God bless your work!

  3. This question and the answer relate to an issue I’ve struggled with. Re: family first with regards to charitable support… my widowed mother has almost no savings left and lives on social security. My nephew and his young daughter live with him. From age 18-26, he used drugs and she went through her life savings paying his legal fees and replacing cars he destroyed, etc. He has been off drugs for over a year and waits tables for a living, but ignores advice to get training in the trades (because they will often hire convicted felons, etc.) He just keeps living hand-to-mouth with my mother, waiting tables. My mother cares for his young daughter who lives with them while he works.
    I am never sure if I should give her money. He does work, but he should be doing more to help the situation he has helped put her in. However, that means the burden of childcare would fall on her even more and she is exhausted. (I don’t live near them or I would take the child to give my mother a break!) She will be out of her savings this year and is in debt. I’m never sure if I should take the money I tithe to my church and help my mother. I could pay for childcare so she could rest more? I worry that doing so will perpetuate my nephew not stepping up to do more.
    Do you have any thoughts or words of wisdom for a situation like this?

  4. Dear Rabbi Lapin,
    I am so glad you are covering this topic.
    It brings to mind something I have often struggled with. Is it pleasing to the Lord if I give money to help family and friends in need instead of giving it to my local church? I often divide my percentage up, when a crisis comes to a family member or friend I give it to them, sometimes I just want to cheer someone up and use some of it to do that, but most often it all goes to the church.
    My guess, as a frequent listener of you, is you will say I should ask my minister, but I would reeaaallly appreciate hearing the answer from ancient Jewish wisdom on this.

  5. This is very helpful. As a reader of your books and posts, I have been wondering about this topic as it relates to an adult child with a chronic medical condition. We have paid utility bills and auto repair for this child, yet they don’t manage the meager income they do receive. Talking and counseling only provide a promise to change behavior that only lasts a few days at best. The next step seems to be financial guardianship which they flat out refuse. Understandable from their viewpoint, but seems to be the only way for the rest of the family to avoid frustration, anger, and turmoil. At what point do you withhold entirely so they are desperate to change behavior?

  6. Vickie Sanderson

    As I read the comments about receiving from others and imagine myself as the receiver I wonder: Is there a difference between toys/gas gifting that makes us/me feel one way and the gift of food that would make us/me feel another? Or is the difference in the stories more circumstantial?

  7. Thank you for the links to groups that rate the various charities. Now the task of rating those that rate and analyzing their rating criteria.
    Frankly, to me, best charity is non material, always a good word and a willingness to help. Suggest direct conversation with perspective recipient would help in learning appropriateness of monetary help.

  8. I’ve learned so much from Judaism, regarding this topic. This is my favorite mitzvah, all 10 levels. I even have a pushkah screwed to the kitchen wall now. Thank you Rabbi Lapin!

  9. So, I have a story. About 6 years ago I got a phone call on Friday that my grandson’s funeral was the following Monday, 900 miles North in Grand Prairie, Alberta, about 900 miles from our home. I didn’t have time to go to the bank and get cash, but figured my credit cards would probably work. Before pumping my tank full in Grand Prairie I checked to see if they’d take my credit card. The answer was affirmative. When I went back in to pay, they couldn’t get it to work and I only had the one card. We tried several different ideas, when the “kids”, young people standing in line behind me stepped up and handed the cashier the cash for my car’s fuel. I remonstrated just a little bit, but their reply was something like, “Next time you see someone in need, help them.” Since that time I’ve helped out several folks I’ve seen “begging” for fuel, or other needs. I don’t have the wherewithal to judge their actual need, so I help them with what I have, remembering the time I was helped. Thank you.

  10. I was 14 years old and superman lay dying in a death ward of a VA hospital. We were barely making it although I really didn’t understand it. One evening after my mom came home from visiting dad (she went twice a day, with four of six children still at home) an AMVETS truck pulled up in front of our house and delivered more groceries than I had ever seen. My mom cried tears of joy, and the rest of us had plain joy. I will always be thankful for the many different people that looked after our well being.
    In adult life I suffered a massive stroke 15 years ago. I learned slowly to accept charity, (IT IS VERY DIFFICULT). The gifts that were anonymous were truly gifts from Our Creator. They seemed to be timed oh so miraculously. I have made a great recovery, but not on my own (I am actually better off than I could have imagined being healthy). I am able to give of my time and finances more than before. I go out of my way to give anonymously. Then if you happen to hear that good report your heart can smile.

    Perhaps Rabbi if you have not done so before you could spread some of Maimonides wisdom on this topic. Simple and profound.

  11. Thank you. Yesterday was my day for planned giving, and I found, after the fact, I hadn’t remembered to do all my due diligence. Your answer gave me more to think about as I was kicking myself today, good and…. well, not bad, but definitely to be more careful as I give. LOL. Just have to keep the senior moments at bay as giving occurs! LOLOL

  12. Hi, I love this topic. We were discussing this very thing today with our family. This really spoke to the way that we give
    “ In general we try to follow the Biblically-based rule that those closest to us have first claim on our discretionary charity dollars. Family before strangers, our community before remote communities, etc.”
    Would you mind giving more detail about how this is biblically based. Do you have any specific versus that you could point me to. I would love to share this with my family and continue our discussion. I really love you guys. May God bless you and your family this new year!

  13. I’m glad you mentioned about giving to someone in a way that destroys their dignity. I think things like “toy drives” and “giving trees” can qualify as such; I suspect people do them because it makes them feel good but they don’t think about how it affects the ones they’re “helping”. I base this on growing up poor and just before Christmas when I was nine or ten, a couple of ladies from a local church came to our house while my dad was at work (he and my mom were divorced and he had custody) and dropped of some gifts. It made me really uncomfortable, wondering why they were giving them to us; it made me feel pitied. Beings we five kids were home alone, we opened them; they were inexpensive toys. When my dad got home, he calmly gathered up the toys and returned them…..I was glad he did. I didn’t like how they made me feel. Which is not to say you shouldn’t help someone or do a kindness; just look at it from their point of view and make sure not just doing it to make yourself feel good.

  14. I love your comment, it is very wise which also helps me thinking of the best way on how to donate.

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