Values Added


What are our philanthropic obligations? How much should we give to charity/justice? When? These aren’t new questions. Tithing is the oldest known Jewish Israelite solution to this problem, though it is was practiced much more widely:

Tithes were common throughout the ancient Near East, as well as in LydiaArabia, and Carthage.

My goal is to have my annual tzedakah (philanthropic giving designed to bring a more just world) meet or exceed a tenth of my annual income. I will get into the details a bit more below.

We set up an ING account which drafts the tithe amount from our checking account once a month. I have been pre-budgeting money for justice work and suggest if for several reasons:

  • It makes it easier to give happily rather than grudgingly. For instance, if we budget a certain amount to give for the year, then every time someone we want to support asks us for some sort of donation, it feels like they are helping us meet a goal rather than depriving us of some other benefit.
  • It makes our giving conform to our values. Instead of the haphazard way I used to give, I now spend time considering the sorts of organizations I want to support before I consider individual organizations.
  • There are record keeping advantages that manifest themselves if we itemize our deductions at tax time.
  • It helps avoid icky solicitations. For instance, when an organization that doesn’t need our money asks for a donation (a wealthy elite college, a social organization that doesn’t need charity money, etc) we can say that it doesn’t meet our giving criteria and that we have budgeted they money for third world development, HIV cures, etc.

Basically, the way this works for us, is that we use TurboTax’s It’s Deductible all year. Every time we make a contribution to a charity, political candidate, etc once of us enters the total, date, cause, and any additional notes. Towards the end of the tax year, we compile the amounts and compared to to our targeted giving budget. Our target is 10% of our annual post-tax income. We use post-tax as we would prefer to count income tax as neither a penalty or bonus towards my tzedakah. Taxes are, as FDR said, are the price we pay for living in an organized society. That is separate from the spiritual obligation to give intentionally, generously, and without compulsion.

One last thought on taxes, most sorts of tzedakah can be claimed as tax deducations (political giving being the big exception). As a result, if your tithe amount (adding other deductions, like state taxes, mortgage interest, and/or student loan interest) exceeds $5,800 for a single filer or $11,600 (in 2011), you can do better than taking the standard deduction. I have heard of an approach where you maximize the tax-benefit of giving by giving double your tithe, but only every other year. If anybody wants, I will elaborate on how this works in the comments, just ask. I ran ac cross an interesting look at jewish law and tithing written by R. Dovid Bendory, a Goldman-Sachs cs dude and orthodox rabbi.

Right, so that more-or-less describes the process, now who do i give to?

Over the past few years I have taken an initial cut at structuring my thinking about giving but have more work to do. I think eventually I will want to sort the universe into geographic and cause categories. For now here is a very rough outline,

Who I am giving to (macro):

  1. local/jewish
  2. local/secular
  3. global/secular
  4. friends who personally solicit me (ima’s advice)
  5. organizations who have been kind to me

Who I am not giving to (macro)

  1. rich orgs
  2. orgs who solicit in dishonest way (non-annual pledge reminders that imply they are annual, etc)
  3. orgs who use creepy arguments to get me to give

Who I am giving to (micro)

I initiay wrote a post on this subject in 2006 and this is who I gave to that year:

  • Political Campaigns
    • Tester (Elected, MT Senator)
    • Busby (Defeated, CA-50)
    • Ciro Rodriguez (Elected, TX-23)
    • Blog Pac
    • Ned Lamont (Defeated, CT Senate)
    • Fenty, (Elected Mayor, DC, gift solicited by several friends)
    • Jeff Toste, (Defeated, RI State Senate district 5, solicited by James Deboer)
  • Local/Jewish
    • Tikkun Leil Shabbat
    • DC Federation (will not give again due to a misleading appeal designed to trick me into giving twice in one year by misrepresenting the date of my last gift)
    • Jews United for Justice
  • Local/Secular
    • DC Vote
    • looking for another for this category
  • Global
    • AJWS
    • Project Muso, run by dear friends
    • Global Justice (in celebration of the Feinspans’ first wedding anniversary)
    • Jubilee USA Network, which coordinates the US arm of the global debt cancellation for poor country movement (Jacob Feinspan suggests)
    • RESULTS – which is a domestic and international anti-poverty lobby (JF pick)
    • The Stephen Lewis Foundation, which funds small community organizations doing phenominal AIDS work (JF Pick)
  • Domestic (not local)
    • ACLU
    • Shape Up RI (donated in support of Rajiv Kumar’s walk-a-thon)
    • Hazon (donated in support of Joe Gindi’s walk-a-thon)
    • Brown Hillel, following a great choice to respect the muslim community and refuse pressure from the mainstream jew-crew to attack them. (perhaps a blog post will be forthcoming on this topic)
    • I have not yet given to an organization active on pro-choice issues, perhaps Naral?
  • Misc
    • Arava/Hazon (donated in support of my dad’s upcoming bike-a-thon)
    • The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, they have been wonderfully kind to TLS–well beyond any reasonable expectation. They have been enormously generous and I feel great about supporting their work.
    • I gave a donation to the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation when i joined their Board. I will give some money at least as long as i am in that role.

Who I am not giving to (micro)

  • Brown University: while i was on the ACCRI we proposed initiating a Social Choice Fund dedicated to avoiding morally speculative investments like military contractors and companies profiting from other incredibly disgusting perpetuation of human suffering. Until the university initiates such a fund i will not contribute. After that, my contribution will be quite small and mostly a token.
  • JNF, last year i contributed as i was asked to run for the World Zionist Congress and it was a necessary gift, they have continued to act in support of west bank settlement and as a result, i cannot give to them in good conscience.
  • Local Federations, as a i described above, the sent me appeal materials which were misleading (i think intentionally).
  • think there are others but none come to mind

As you probably noticed, about a half-dozen of these are labeled as being solicited by friends. When I was little, my mom told me that when people (especially young people) are involved in a cause (volunteering, doing a blank-a-thon, etc) and ask her to support the organization they are working on behalf of she makes supports it. Everyone should always be successful in raising funds for justice! I have followed this great insight. Anytime someone asks me, personally, to give to a cause they care about, i try to. I can’t think of an instance where i didn’t give. I have been blessed to have never received a rejection from a friend when i was raising money for a cause i cared about, and no one ever should.

I want to get better at this, which orgs are you giving to? Categories?


updates: my mom clarified that she always gives to people who are actively invovled in an organization, ie they volunteer or are doing a blank-a-thon or something. She doesn’t feel as strongly about plain old solicitations.

BZ astutely pointed out that the deductibility of State and Local taxes on federal returns means many of us will be able to itemize our charitable giving and legitimately pay lower taxes.

I forgot a gift to the JRF and added a bullet point on that.