Philanthropy, tzedakah, charity, chesed — the Jewish community has multiple words for the generous act of contributing money to a cause, group or individual in need of financial support.
But in a world where vehicles for charitable giving thankfully abound, how should people choose where to donate? How can they tell if an organization is credible or crooked? Maybe philanthropy should be left to the people who put their names on the sides of buildings?
Not according to Marc Terrill of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and Diane Lipson Schilit and Amy Schilit Benarroch of the Jewish crowdfunding charity Righteous Crowd.
Networks vs. Crowds
Marc Terrill has been the president of The Associated for 17 years, and he said the institution is unique in its structure as a network of agencies. “When you’re making an donation, you support a portfolio of over 20 organizations. Those organizations are able to focus on what they’re mandated to do,” said Terrill. “They do not have to go out and fundraise because they’re part of The Associated network. It stamps out redundancy.”
“Beneficiaries have been connected to the system for as long as it’s been around,” Terrill added, noting that The Associated also maintains “strategic alliances” with other organizations “aligned” with the institution’s work. “People either know about the work that’s done based on our reputation and that we have been here almost 100 years, or if you live in the community you have visual reminders of the reach of The Associated network.”
The Associated doesn’t have “a particular type of donor,” according to Terrill. Rather, they represent all ages and denominations of Judaism. “We also have non-Jewish donors, who appreciate what we accomplish around the world and in Israel and Baltimore,” he added. “We are blessed that people understand the utility and efficacy of what we accomplish and the lives that we affect. There’s nothing average about donors.”
The Associated is equipped with hundreds of volunteers and professionals who are gaging trends in the community and making assessments, reporting back to allocations committees about where funds are needed, said Terrill. Choices are made in conjunction with The Associated’s leadership, with the assistance of professional practitioners.
“For example, in the 2008 financial collapse, we gathered agency leadership at The Associated and made determinations of what we had to do immediately to keep people in their homes,” he said. “We made emergency funds for those who couldn’t afford food or medicine. Other things had to be put on the shelf while we dealt with basic needs.”
It’s all part of what they do every day. “We assess needs. Where appropriate, we forge collaboratives and coalitions. For example, dealing with teens that may have risky behaviors may need Jewish community center help. The money is raised, assessed, allocated, then monitored.”
In contrast with The Associated, Righteous Crowd is a family affair.
A few years ago, professional investment manager and Maryland native Jonathan Schilit discovered Dollar a Day, a website that featured little-known nonprofits around the world. “I thought it would be great if the Jewish community would have something similar,” Schilit told Kol HaBirah in an April 2019 interview.
With support and encouragement from his parents, Howard Schilit and Diane Lipson Schilit, and youngest sister Suzanne, Jonathan and his sister Amy Schilit Benarroch (a Brooklyn-based Jewish educator) launched the online tzedakah platform Righteous Crowd in December 2018.
“Someone described us as a ‘philanthropy concierge,’” he said in the interview. “For about the cost of one Soul Cycle class, you can support organizations helping vulnerable populations, and also learn some Torah: Every Friday, Righteous Crowd members receive an email announcing the not-for-profit receiving the collective funds and how it is connected to the Jewish calendar.”
Terrill played down the role of Judaism in people’s decision to offer financial support to The Associated. “It’s an individual decision. If that’s through their Jewish values or way of operating the world, that’s wonderful. If we have people with their own motivations, that’s wonderful as well,” he said.
But for the Schilits, presenting donors with a giving experience that connects explicitly to Judaism is a fundamental component of Righteous Crowd.
Home or Away
Righteous Crowd is similar to a “giving circle” model, where a group of people pool their donations and decide collectively where to give together, said AmySchilit Benarroch in a recent phone interview. In the case of Righteous Crowd, she acknowledged there is “definitely a level of trust” because the Schilits vet the potential beneficiaries and make the ultimate choice of where the money goes on behalf of the members. But it is still a community experience, she added.
“By joining the crowd, you’re multiplying your donation and feel like you’re part of a giving community, and also discovering new causes to support,” she said.
Righteous Crowd presently has 300 people on its mailing list and 250 “members” (weekly donors). In the beginning, the Schilits were building off of their social network, but word of mouth and positive coverage is spreading the word: The default minimum donation for a member is $1, and the startup charity presently gathers an average of $1,800 per week.
A chosen recipient organization might be explicitly Jewish, have a Jewish founder or have some connection with Israel, but the organization always is aimed at helping vulnerable populations and has a budget of less than $5 million. Beneficiaries serving the Baltimore area have included Leveling the Playing Field, an organization started by a Jewish man from Maryland that gives underprivileged children opportunities to participate in youth sports.
Righteous Crowd’s recipient charities are in the D.C. area, Baltimore, up the eastern seaboard and beyond. But is there something to be said for focusing on the need at home before looking to communities abroad?
“I was at an Amplifier incubator last fall and we had that same debate,” said Schilit Benarruch. “It felt like there was no right answer for it.” (Amplifier is a network of giving circles motivated by Jewish values, and Amplifier incubators are for people who want to start a giving circle.)
She eventually came to the conclusion that Jewish texts supported both perspectives. “With Righteous Crowd, it felt like a way to answer yes and yes to all of those things,” she said.
The Associated also sets its sights abroad when it comes to allocating money for programming. “We made a decision with the community to deal with underserved populations [in Israel],” said Terril. One initiative is a head-start program for new immigrants called PACT: Parents and Children Together.
The Associated identified an issue, created an intentional plan and makes a real difference, he said.
Terrill and the Schilits offered various tips for individuals wondering how to gauge the credibility of a charity.
Terrill recommended familiarizing oneself with the organization’s “dynamic” by looking at material like their annual reports (essentially summaries of their projects and areas of impact).
When it comes to donations to charity organizations based outside the U.S., if tax records are hard to come by (or harder to get in English), Diane Lipson Schilit recommended seeking a “friends of” organization — a U.S.-based affiliate, in other words.
They all recommended taking advantage of third-party assessors like Charity Navigator and GuideStar to see IRS forms and metrics ranging from transparency to how much is spent on executive salaries.
The Schilits, for instance, operate Righteous Crowd as volunteers. This allows for 100% of member donations to go to the beneficiary organizations. In a recent development, the family has started making donations on behalf of whole Hebrew school classes through Righteous Crowd in the interest of bringing young people on as members and jump-starting their involvement in philanthropy. When the default member donation is a dollar, the barrier to entry is low.
Terrill said The Associated most recently raised around $30 million in unrestricted funds and an additional $20 million to go toward specific programs in the local community and in Israel. Like the Schilits, he emphasized that every donation helps. “Every donation matters to us in order to be able to provide the service we do,” he said. “We have donors that give to their ability. In terms of amounts, it is as variable as types of contributors.”
Terrill encouraged people not to look at an organization’s budget or donor list and feel there’s no need to contribute, or that whatever they could give wouldn’t make a meaningful difference.
“Numbers are thrown around like $30 million or $50 million. The fact of the matter is there is always more need and more opportunity. We are only limited by our imagination and by our human financial resources,” he said. “If people want to be part of something bigger than themselves and develop a community that we can continue to be proud of … I think every dollar has a place, is appreciated and important.”