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Op-eds

Ask the right questions before donating to charity

  • Howard Feldman 2018
There is no easy way to write this, but I am going to give it a shot. Jewish South African donors need to exercise more responsibility when deciding which charities they support, based on how compliant the organisation is.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Oct 11, 2018

Even if we are quite fond of the person approaching us.

As a rule, we are nice people. We want to help everyone, and often we are uncomfortable with asking the questions that we consider impolite. We probably would have no issue asking similar questions when looking to invest in a business. But when it comes to matters of community, our need not to offend, our guilt, and our naivety conspire to make us timid.

I recall a conversation with a friend a few years back. We had both been approached by a visiting rabbi who was looking for support. Neither of us trusted either the person or the cause. We debated how to approach it, because we didn’t want to risk offending the bloke who had approached us.

We decided to be honest with him (more or less). I spoke to him first, and explained that I would not be funding him. He was not happy at all. But my friend gave him a sizeable donation. When I challenged him on why he had done so, his response was, “It was much easier to give him the money than it was to say no.”

A post Zuma South Africa has made us deeply intolerant of corruption. Any whiff of non-compliance from government is naturally seen in the most negative light. We live in fear that we could quite easily go back to where we were – even though we are not even through it completely. And we are right. Corruption has done immense damage to the country. We are, quite literally, still paying the price.

And yet, we don’t seem to be as concerned and demanding when it comes to our own community organisations. Of course, there are many of our charities, schools, shuls, and community organisations that are audited, and that would withstand external scrutiny. But sadly, there are also many that are not, and would not.

A recent meeting with a community rabbi shocked me. In discussing this issue, he told me that he would not make a personal phone call from the shul office. “It’s not my money,” he explained. Although I considered this to be unnecessary, what hit home was the responsibility that he felt towards money that he considered to belong to the community.

I have often wondered why South Africa sees a massive influx of collectors from Israel. The rand is clearly a problem, the cost of the flight a hindrance, and yet, somehow, we are still viewed as an attractive destination. That can be only because it is worthwhile.

Many (not all) only give a percentage of the booty to the organisation they represent, and much of the charity is used to fund the trip itself. And yet, it is rare that we have the courage to ask a person of G-d these questions.

A rule of thumb as a donor is that we should be asking the following:

  • Is the organisation compliant from a tax and governance perspective?
  • Are the financials open to scrutiny?
  • Does the organisation take good care of the public funds in its control?
  • Is there an independent board that will assist the organisation in self-correcting should a problem occur?
  • Do we know how much of the donation will make it back to the charity itself?

Mostly, we need to be sure that believe in the cause. We need to confident that the organisation is worth supporting, and that the recipients will receive as much of our funds as is practical.

This should be true if we are donating R18, or R18 000, or R180 000.

There are many wonderful organisations that show good governance and are compliant. But there many that don’t, and are not. The choice to support a non-compliant organisation belongs to the donor.

All I am suggesting is that the more we fund these organisations, the quieter we should be when it comes to calling out state corruption.

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