A Call For Tech-Savvy Tzedakah

by Daniel S. Horwitz

I recently had an incredible experience: a friend of mine decided to make a donation to a micro-lending nonprofit organization in my honor. I received a tribute card in the mail letting me know of his contribution – something that happens pretty frequently in the Jewish community (we love tribute cards!). I was of course flattered that he had thought of me and made a contribution in my honor. But what happened next was completely unexpected: the letter I received with the card informed me that as a result of the contribution having been made in my honor, it would now be up to me to log in to the website, confirm my account, read and learn about the various business ventures individuals in the developing world were hoping to start, and to decide which worthy individuals I wanted my credited account dollars to support. While making a donation in my honor, my friend had brought me into the charitable giving process – allowing me to decide where his dollars should go – resulting in my learning about the organization, the individuals it was supporting, and ultimately resulting in my becoming a donor so that I could share the giving experience with others as well.

There is no question that the Jewish tradition places a tremendous emphasis on the mitzvah of tzedakah, going so far as to teach that even those who are the recipients of tzedakah must give tzedakah to others from what they receive. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 248:1)

Let’s start from what I think is a basic principle many of us can agree on: It is essential to instill the value of charitable giving in our children (no matter how old our children are), specifically to Jewish causes (not to the exclusion of secular causes), so that they will invest in and be generous contributors to the Jewish community (regardless of their means; remember – even those receiving tzedakah are meant to find a way to give).

While the American Jewish community donates generously overall, the overwhelming majority of total charitable dollars come from mega-donors, who also, overwhelmingly, are older and come from a generation that had a greater sense of communal obligation.

Recent studies have shown that Jews are more likely to give to non-Jewish causes than to Jewish ones, while a study from the early 2000s made it painstakingly clear that Jewish mega-donors (those who contribute $10 million+ in a single year), while charitable, were donating to specifically Jewish causes only about 6% of their total charitable dollars.

What is the Jewish charitable landscape going to look like once the older generation passes on? Once the children of Jewish mega-donors decide to contribute to Jewish specific causes at an even lower clip?

We as a community need to be proactively educating about the importance of charitable giving – and need to do so without making an “ask” in the process! Fortunately, technology has provided us with incredible tools that can create meaningful opportunities for such experiential learning.

Drawing on the experience I shared above, what would it look like if the Jewish community were to adopt a web platform which provided donors with the opportunity to empower others to designate which Jewish charities will receive their contributions (thereby engaging them in the charitable giving process and providing them with the experience of giving tzedakah)?

Imagine parents who are planning to donate $2,500 to their local Jewish Federation setting up a simple online donation account for their children, who in turn would have the ability to watch brief 2 minute video clips about various Federation beneficiary agencies, and to then earmark the donation to their agencies of choice.

Imagine if those who went on Birthright Israel learned that if they choose to donate their trip deposit of $250, that it will be matched by a donor’s $250, and that they now have $500 to donate to their Jewish and/or Israeli charity of choice (demonstrating the power of pooling funds and the importance in the Jewish tradition placed on Jewish charitable giving)?

What would a technology-centric national project to inspire charitable giving look like?

Some potential components:

Perhaps Jewish charities hoping to receive donations could establish their own pages / brief videos on the web platform, explaining what their mission statement is, and how charitable dollars directly assist them in their work.

Perhaps in coordination with other sites (e.g. Jewcer.com, a Kickstarter-esque site for specifically Jewish projects), specific Jewish communal centric projects could be pitched that need support.

Perhaps partnering with the JDC, the ability would exist to learn about and support some of their incredible oversees work.

The opportunities for tech-savvy tzedakah are endless!

We should strive to bring more people into the charitable giving process – even those who aren’t putting in money themselves. Just as the mitzvah of tzedakah is lifelong, so too is our opportunity to engage and educate Jewish individuals (regardless of their age) about the value we place on charitable giving. Let’s find creative ways to engage more people in the charitable giving process. Let’s be willing to explore and utilize technology to make it happen. As we wrap up 2013, I encourage you to give, to give to Jewish causes, to give generously, and to find meaningful ways to engage, inspire and empower your children (even those who are grown up), friends and extended family in your giving process.

Daniel S. Horwitz is the outgoing Rabbi and Director of Immersive Learning at Moishe House.