“Thou Shalt Donate to Overhead Costs”: The Biblical Commandment of Keeping the Lights On

by Rabbi Mishael Zion

This summer the nonprofit world was rocked by a campaign to “Debunk the Overhead Myth.” With a growing body of research and years of experience behind them, a coalition of experts claimed that, counter to popular belief, “overhead is a poor measure of a charity’s performance.” While 62 percent of Americans believe that a typical charity spends more than it should on overhead, these researchers believe that “charities should spend more on overhead” in order to be healthy and effective. Instead of seeking miniscule overhead percentages, donors should focus on a nonprofit’s “transparency, governance, leadership and results.”

I was sorry my late grandfather couldn’t read these reports. He always made it a point to earmark his charitable donation specifically for “overhead.” When I once asked him about this, he answered with his typical evasive smile: “Well, we are Levites.”

I was confused. I already knew we came from the Tribe of Levi, and it was a fact I mostly resented. The underappreciated cousins of the Kohanim (singular, Kohen) – the priestly tribe that descends from biblical Aaron – we Levites were consigned to washing the priests’ hands. If the Temple were ever to be rebuilt, our best career prospects would be as glorified song leaders, lyre in hand. Levites are the Art Garfunkel of the Jewish tribes.

In any case, what did this have to do with overhead costs?

When I pushed him, my grandfather said that, as a rabbi, social worker and activist, he had gained insight into the costs and benefits of Jewish communal service. And as a Levite, he had a “genetic appreciation” for the gray work of communal professionals. Since he saw how others underappreciated these professionals and the true costs of doing communal work effectively, he felt it was his responsibility to donate specifically to overhead expenses.

Thus, it was gratifying to find the nonprofit world opening up to the importance of overhead costs. To this formidable campaign I contribute the modest offering of biblical precedent: “The Commandment of Donating to Overhead.” This week’s Torah portion of Tetzaveh, which discusses the building of the Tabernacle, opens with the following commandment (Exodus 27:20-21):

Command the Children of Israel, to bring you pure oil of pressed olives to keep the lamps burning continually… Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before God from sunset until daybreak. [This shall be] a law for the ages, throughout your generations, on the part of the children of Israel.

The Torah commands us to “keep the lights on.” Of the many donations the people of Israel are asked to make to support the sanctuary, this is the only one that is required on an ongoing basis.

Fittingly, this commandment became an actual “law for the ages,” long after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E. An ancient rabbinic commentary makes the shift clear:

[This shall be] a law for the ages, throughout your generations, on the part of the children of Israel.” Even though the Temple has been destroyed and its candles extinguished, there still stand houses of prayer and houses of study in which we must light candles, for those are called “micro-temples” (Midrash Ha’Gadol, Leviticus 6:2).

In Jewish communities throughout the ages, the commandment of “keeping the lights on” became one of the most powerful guiding principles. In every community – from 11th-century Spain, through 16th-century Italy, to 19th-century Lithuania – there were always associations called “Shemen la’Maor” (Oil for Lighting) or “Ner Tamid” (the Constant Candle) whose key mandate was to fundraise for the oil to illuminate the sanctuary and other overhead costs. It comes as no surprise that these two names are taken directly from the biblical verses quoted above.

While in the Jewish world the personal touch of candles has been replaced by electricity, visiting the sanctuaries of other religious communities reminds us of how this commandment continues to be played out literally in some churches and temples, where devotees bring candles and light them in the sanctuary. This individual, humble and illuminating act speaks volumes of the individual responsibility to keep our communal institutions running.

Not as directly illuminating as the candles – nor as humble – the plaques at the entrance to our communal institutions also remind us that these institutions depend on our donations. But while the appearance of these plaques might lead us to believe that the responsibility to sustain our institutions lies primarily with the wealthy, the candles remind us that it is up to each of us to contribute to the effort. Indeed, in one synagogue in Jerusalem every lightbulb is donated by a different member of the community!

The commandment of contributing toward the “oil for lighting” has become symbolic of the debate about overhead costs. The modern day priests (and Levites!) who toil in the sanctuaries of our communal institutions deserve support and recognition. Understanding the complicated inner workings of our communal organizations, it is incumbent upon us to “bring to light” the importance of this sacred work.

Rabbi Mishael Zion is the co-Director of the Bronfman Fellowships, a diverse community of 1,000 young Jewish leaders from North America and Israel. He is the author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices”. Mishael blogs at Text and the City and in 2013 was named one of ten “Rabbis to Watch” by Newsweek/the Daily Beast.

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  1. Hal M. Lewis says

    Of all the many wonderful and artful insights I have read in these pages and across an array of scholarly and popular publications over the years, I cannot think of one that matches the perspicacity of your, “Levites are the Art Garfunkel of the Jewish tribes.” Yishar kohakha.

  2. Mishael Zion says

    Perspicacity, or perhaps simply an outdated taste in music… Touched by your compliment either way, Hal. Thank you and Shabbat shalom!

  3. says

    Rabbi Zion, thank you for bringing a unique perspective on this debate! Allowing nonprofits flexibility to do our work will lead to better outcomes and to fewer people running screaming from this line of work.

  4. says

    rabeynu mishael,

    excellent and yasher koach. but, if i may, i just want to add one word to your use of ‘overhead’. can we agree that ‘reasonable overhead’ is what your intent is? certainly, you must agree that if organization ‘bet’ has 37% overhead and organization ‘gimmel’ has 16% overhead, and assuming that they are both equally effective in their identical mission, then bet’s 37% is quite unreasonable, yes?

    this is the exact work i do on behalf of my clients, foundations, and philanthropists. i find those organizations who are the most efficient and effective at what they do. reasonable overhead is fine. unreasonable is a crime – even by halachic standards. (see Proverbs 22:22, Numbers Rabba 5:2)

    keep up the excellent insightful Torah explications. we need more of them!

  5. says

    Arnie, let’s take this example: Organization ‘gimmel’ contracts with caterers for their left-over meals to provide food for the homeless. The excess food is delivered to gimmel’s storefront location and those in need can come in and pick-up the next day. Overhead 16%.

    Organization ‘bet’ has the identical mission, however they send drivers around every night at midnight to collect excess food from restaurants. The next morning bet’s drivers deliver that food to five pick-up points around the city for neighborhood pick-up. Overhead 37%.

    Are you really saying that bet’s 37% is, to quote you, “quite unreasonable”? After all, they may be “equally effective in their identical mission” but their modi operandi are different models.

    From the example above, no potential donor has sufficient information to judge which of the two organizations have the higher efficiency or effectiveness.

    Blinding looking at numbers, as all too many people do, has the potential to be significantly misleading.

    Shabbat Shalom.

  6. says

    Arnie, I worked for an org that developed an IT platform for microgrants that enabled it to be incredibly efficient at administering thousands of microgrants a year that would normally have been managed by staff. The staff are considered a direct program expense, but the IT was considered overhead. Had we gone the staff route our overhead % would have looked good, but out impact would have been much smaller – the IT system was much more scalable.

    All things being equal, it’s impossible to know whether high overhead is part of the problem or part of the solution. Transparency and strong governance are the only ways to ensure that high overhead is a strategic choice, and not a means for burying inappropriate expenses… but that’s true of direct program expenses too, where who receives grants and fulfillment contracts needs to be monitored and controlled.

  7. says

    This is a beautiful piece of Torah, Mishael. At Hillel at UCLA, we are especially aware that our “program” is primarily about relationships – the relationships our staff have with students, the communities we help our students cultivate, and the connections we have to our campus and LA Jewish Community. We are proud that most of budget is spent on our networking-weaving, meaning-creating staff and students, and are careful to included those costs and the overhead that makes those relationships possible, even when a donor or foundation doesn’t (yet) give credit for those essential elements.

  8. says

    a) dan – you write “no potential donor has sufficient information to judge which of the two organizations have the higher efficiency or effectiveness.” – that is a false premise since that is exactly what i do for my donors. i give them more than sufficient information to make informed decisions about funding. in your example above, it is quite clear to me that ‘bet’ needs to figure out a way to reduce overhead, since there are dozens of other organizations doing what they do for less. why would i support ‘bet’ if i can feed more hungry people with ‘gimmel’ or any other one?

    b) isaac – you write “it’s impossible to know whether high overhead is part of the problem or part of the solution” – that, too, is a false premise. and that is exactly what my job entails on behalf of my donors. it is to know this, and many other, pieces of information. while i would need more detail to really know, my guess is that the IT funding was a one-time deal, and not part of your annual budget. any wise donor would see that, and not include in any decision making process where overhead was an issue.

  9. Dan Brown says

    Sorry Arnie, but I disagree. Based on your example, there is not sufficient information to reach the conclusion you advocate.
    Perhaps you have it and provide to your donors but that’s not the way you framed your original comment.

  10. says

    Arnie, you are absolutely right that it takes knowing many pieces of information to put together the entire puzzle of whether an organization is operating wisely and efficiently. So much do that advisors like yourself can make a living providing that insight to philanthropists and foundations. The problem is that too many donors, even quite sophisticated ones from our best foundations, have placed undue emphasis on the overhead ratio.

  11. says

    isaac – i have no problem with donors placing undue emphasis on UNreasonable overhead (and dan, 37% is still 37%). but, yes, just looking at one factor is not the right way to give. and if i may, i will use the beginning of your sentence but give it a different ending: “The problem is that too many donors, even quite sophisticated ones from our best foundations, just don’t care how their precious, holy, hard-earned tzedakah shekels are spent.”