Jewish Charities Get Favorable Rating

If you’re concerned that the money you donate to Los Angeles Jewish charities is eaten up by administrative and fundraising costs, fear not.

Most Jewish charities in Los Angeles have a favorable rating for the amount of dollars spent on their projects compared to dollars spent on costs, according to Charity Navigator, a new philanthropic watchdog. The group assessed some 130 Jewish nonprofits, including seven from Los Angeles, among 2,500 charities across the United States. It then rated the groups based on the Form 990 tax returns that all nonprofit charities, except religious institutions, must provide annually to the IRS.

Charity Navigator evaluated the groups’ overall financial health, fundraising and organizational efficiency. The goal was to equip potential donors with enough detail to “make more intelligent giving decisions,” spokeswoman Sandra Miniutti said.

Independent analysis of charities and philanthropies remains relatively rare, so many in the Jewish philanthropic world welcome the extra focus.

Such data “should serve as a reminder to donors that it is not enough to find a cause that tugs at your heart strings,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network. “We have to hold charities we care about to higher standards of efficiency, effectiveness and transparency.”

Among all kinds of charities, Jewish and non-Jewish, the median fundraising costs were about $.08 of every dollar, she said — “pretty good” compared to the most efficient charities. Those charities deemed the most efficient spent no more than $.10 cents, or 10 percent, to raise each dollar. It’s estimated that there are between $25 billion and $50 billion in assets in the coffers of U.S. Jewish philanthropies, from foundations and federations to nonprofits and pension funds.

What the watchdog calls religious charities range from museums to universities to the U.S.-based fundraising arms of Israeli institutions to Jewish federations and political groups. Each charity was assigned up to 70 points and up to four stars, with better scores going to those showing greater financial health and streamlined bureaucracies.

The Jewish groups ranked similarly to other nonprofits when it came to areas such as fundraising and program expenses, but ranked poorly regarding money in the bank.

Checked for their “working-capital ratio,” or how much cash each group would have left if fundraising dried up, Jewish charities had enough to last for only 3.6 months on average, compared to 8.3 months for non-Jewish charities. Such “liquid assets” could be cash, stocks or easily sellable property such as real estate. The Jewish charities ranked lower because they typically raise the bulk of their money around the High Holidays and at the end of the year, but don’t have cash on hand year-round, Miniutti said.

In Los Angeles, the top rated Jewish charities were Jewish Family Services (JFS), Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the Skirball Cultural Center, which were all awarded four stars, and 62, 63, and 68 points respectively. According to Charity Navigator, JFS spends only $.02 to raise every dollar, Mazon spends $.07 and the Skirball spends $.04.

The charity with the next highest rating was the Simon Wiesenthal Center which was awarded three stars and 53 points, and spends $.17 cents to raise every dollar. The Bureau of Jewish Education, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation were granted two stars.

Nationally, the top Jewish charity was the Shefa Fund, which won a four-star, 69-point rating. The fund, dedicated to advancing social responsibility through grants, spent $.04 cents to raise each dollar, according to its Form 990.

Jeffrey Dekro, president of the Shefa Fund, said his organization’s first-place ranking “is really consistent with the doctrine of our work.”

At the bottom of the Jewish heap sat the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah, which is dedicated to Jewish education and outreach. The group garnered only 19 points and zero stars, spending $.23 cents to raise each dollar.

In several cases, Charity Navigator ranked branches of the same charities separately because they were incorporated separately for nonprofit status and file different forms to the IRS. Aish HaTorah represented one such case, with its New York branch, which it says is dedicated to “wisdom for living,” gaining 53 points and three stars, spending only $.13 cents to bring in every dollar.

Irwin Katsof, the Los Angeles-based president of Aish HaTorah, said he couldn’t discuss the findings until he had studied them more closely.

“I’m not really going to comment until I’ve had a chance to analyze how they did it,” Katsof said.

Charendoff, whose Jewish Funders Network is an umbrella group for many of the more than 8,000 private Jewish family foundations in the United States, some of which were rated byc Navigator, said the rankings provide useful data but miss some subtleties.

While the rankings allow one to compare a range of similar charities for their efficiency, they offer only a snapshot that does not reflect an organization’s development over time.

Newer charities “may take a few years to achieve a balance between building the business and delivering the product,” he said.

The rankings also do not take into account the size of an organization, he added. A small foundation may have only one fundraising professional, accounting for a major share of its budget, compared to bigger organizations with more money and a few more fundraisers.

Charity Navigator’s rankings, compiled in August and updated Sept. 3, were based on federal reports from 2001 and 2002, but the group “looked back” to 1997 and 1998 to “calculate growth as well,” Miniutti said.

Other national Jewish nonprofits that got ranked for overall efficiency included Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which ranked 10th, and the World Jewish Congress, which was listed 112th.

Staff Writer Gaby Wenig contributed to this report.

Low Profile, High Impact

It is tough to estimate current public opinion regarding Valley secession. In the two years since the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) began its investigation into the possibility of secession, the world and the people of Los Angeles have radically changed their priorities. To paraphrase Rick Blaine in "Casablanca," it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of two little areas don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Still, in interviews at locations around Los Angeles, when people had opinions about secession, it was primarily favorable.

"It may be good because the city’s too large, and you have a lot of wasted money happening," said Westside resident Amy Raff. "So if you were to break it down, and deal with the issues on this side of the hill, specifically, and keep the money here to deal with those issues, and the money on that side to deal with those issues, then it would be good."

Iris Zaft, 53, moved to West Hills four years ago from the Pico-Robertson area. She said her vote would depend heavily on weighing the social benefits of secession.

"If it would benefit people who are sending young people to school, it would be very good for the Valley," Zaft said. "[The city of Los Angeles] may be harder to govern because it’s so large and so diverse; and there are senior citizens’ needs and families’ needs and young people to consider. If [secession] would help those people, it would be a good thing."

Zaft said either way the secession issue ended up being resolved, it should not affect relations within the Jewish community.

"I’m still friends with people from Pico-Robertson. They might ask me what I like and what is different living here, but it doesn’t separate us."

Allan Abramson, 47, an engineer with Los Angeles County’s Public Works Department, said he had mixed opinions about the issue.

"There are valid points on all sides," he said. "From what I understand, there’s definitely money in the Valley, so if the secession would allow the Valley to keep the money here and not support South-Central or the poorer areas of Los Angeles, that’s what some people feel good about. It’s going to tax the governmental system; the infrastructure will have to be divided and rebuilt. It will take a lot of time but the logistics are fairly surmountable."

Abramson said it probably would not affect his department. "Depending on how they break up the services, there might be some voids where the county would have to provide some services. That’s what L.A. County Public Works does. The county provides services based on the requests of incorporated cities which aren’t big enough or don’t have the facilities to provide those services."

Like Zaft, Abramson said the effect of secession on the Los Angeles Jewish community would be negligible.

"You have family on this side of the hill; you have family on that side of the hill. There are temples and synagogues on both sides. If you’re in the situation of doing shiva and you’re in the city and want to go say Kaddish, you go to a synagogue there; if you’re in the Valley you go to a synagogue in the Valley. It wouldn’t make any difference," he concluded.

In addition to its less-than-glamorous profile, the secession issue also suffers from the public’s lack of understanding of what it means. Most people interviewed said their main reason for supporting secession was that it would improve local schools, implying that a secession from the city would naturally result in the creation of a new school district for the new Valley city. However, the State Board of Education (which must approve any measures for creating new school districts) ruled in early December that San Fernando Valley schools could not break off from the Los Angeles Unified School District, because the district relies too heavily on funding from Valley residents and because such a move would further segregate city and Valley schools.

Political analysts like Raphael Sonenshein, a professor at California State University Fullerton, say they fear current misunderstandings about the real impacts of secession could have dire repercussions if the issue goes to a vote in November.

"What we don’t know is what information will be on the ballot or what the terms are going to be, because no one agrees on the terms right now," Sonenshein said. "It is extremely difficult to answer whether you are for or against secession when it is only posed as an abstract. The problem is, this is such a big deal, it is difficult for people to get their arms around the consequences, whether good or bad. People are taking a lot of shortcuts in their analysis because it is simpler that way."

Sonenshein said much of how people will ultimately vote on the issue rests on what kind of information they receive in the next seven months.

"That’s why we have political campaigns. It allows for the information to be brought to the table, and then tested against each side," he said. He added that in his opinion, the polls should have shown even more support for secession than they did "because most of the information coming from LAFCO points out the ways secession would work. But that will all be tested in the heat of the political campaign."

LAFCO officials will submit their decision regarding placing the issue before voters on the November ballot later this month. In the meantime, watch for The Journal’s final segment in this series, which will examine the likelihood of secession passing and the role the Jewish-community, as voting bloc, will play.