A Primer on Giving: What to ask before you start

The Torah commands you to give a minimum of 10 percent of your earnings (ma’aser) to charity, and 20 percent if you are generous. That’s easier said than done, according to philanthropists, Jewish communal leaders, and charity evaluators.

Where should you donate your money? How? How much? How do you know if you’re getting your money’s worth? Like Maimonides’ eight levels of charity what follows are eight good questions to start asking.

1. How Do I Pick a Cause?

Go with your passions, says Susan Grinel, director of the Family Foundation Center of the Jewish Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization partnering with donors, professional advisers and agencies in all aspects of charitable giving. Ask yourself what you care about, what your passions are, Grinel says — that should give you a good place to start. If it’s a broad passion, such as helping children, you can narrow it down by determining whether you want to help children in areas of poverty, mental health, education, etc.

“Then you can zero in on a program,” Grinel said.

Many people also donate money in honor of someone, and that can help in choosing the type of cause for a donation. Grinel recently helped two siblings who wanted to honor their deceased sibling, a social worker. She came up with a menu of possibilities, and the two decided to sponsor a Chai Lifeline scholarship to send a child with cancer to Camp Simcha, a place for children facing serious illnesses.

“My sister loved helping others in needand was a mental health counselor and worked with handicapped and sick individuals. She wanted to make a difference and help people smile,” the woman’s brother said. “Providing an opportunity for these kids to go to a camp and enjoy themselves means the world to us, and I know it means the world to my sister.”

2. What If I Don’t Have a Particular Passion or Gift in Memoriam?

“If you don’t have something specific, the best thing to do is give to an umbrella,” Grinel said.

For example, if you want to donate to a Jewish cause, you can donate to The Jewish Federation, and if you want to give to a general cause, you can donate to the United Way.

“That’s what they are there for,” she says. Umbrella and large organizations have the staff and experience to investigate worthwhile charities.

3. Should I Donate to the Organization in General or Target My Funds to a Specific Program?

Most people involved in the world of philanthropy agree: targeted donations, or donating to a specific program or event rather than making a general donation to an organization, are growing more popular. They allow people to connect to and follow a concrete and specific goal, such as feeding the hungry in a specific town in Israel, or taking a group of poor inner city kids to the country for the day.

“The trend line among younger people is to know what they are giving to and how they are giving,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “It’s not necessarily a bad phenomenon, but in the extreme it’s a bad phenomenon, because where’s the collective action when you need it?”

When you donate to the organization as a whole and not a specific — and perhaps trendy or popular — cause, “you are allowing the organization to make a decision on how the contribution should be made,” Fishel said.

4. At What Level Donation Will I Be Involved With the Charity?

Not to put a figure on charity, but anything less than $3,000-$5,000, Grinel said, should probably just go to operational costs rather than influence a specific program.

“An agency is not going to respond if you’re in a smaller bracket,” she said, adding “it’s harder to target your dollars to something specific, because they have to track those dollars. When they’re also trying to keep their lights on at the same time. You don’t want to take away from their operation.”

5. Is It Better to Give to Many Charities or Just a Few?

“Unlike your investment portfolio, diversification isn’t a good strategy when giving to charity,” advised Charity Navigator, an online resource for evaluating charities. “We suggest that you take the time to find a few well-run charities that match your interests and make a commitment to support those charities over time. By concentrating your giving among a few outstanding charities, your donations will do more good than if you contributed small gifts to a wide array of charities.”

On the other hand, Grinel says that it depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

“If you’re trying to accomplish something in a field, it’s better to develop a relationship with an agency over the years,” she said. “If your purpose is to respond to requests that come in, then certainly you can give smaller amounts to a variety of places.”

Also, she said, we all have a limited amount of time and energy, and if you must track your donations and their progress, it might be best to concentrate your donation.

6. What Financial Information Do I Need to Know About My Charity?

There are a number of online charity guides such as Charity Navigator and Guidestar.org that evaluate charities based on their tax returns, operational overhead, and CEO salaries. Organizations such as The Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation can also assist donors in investigating a charity.

Fishel said that many individuals call them to check out a charity they are interested in.

“Many organizations come to us — particularly [about charities that are] international in scope, looking for the imprimatur of the Federation, and it makes it easier for other individuals and gives them legitimacy,” he said.

Charity Navigator says to check the charity’s 501(c) (3) status, to insure that at least 75 percent of the organization’s budget is spent on programs and services, and less than 25 percent on fundraising and administrative fees. (Grinel advises an 80 percent to 20 percent split.) Ask for the three most recent 990 forms if they’re not available online, she recommends checking the Web site.