One of the most critical factors in giving tzedakah is the due diligence required to know that the funds we donate are used effectively and well. This concern was famously highlighted by Moses Maimonidies in his classic presentation on the laws of tzedakah:
We are required to take more care about the commandment of tzedakah…than for any other positive commandment. (Hilchot Matnot Ani’im 10:1)
I’ve been thinking about this caution as we read increasing reports about the staggering amounts of money currently being raised in the 2008 presidential campaign. After several months of fund-raising, the candidates for president have already raised more than $150 million. By most reports, this campaign will be the first to top the $1 billion mark – certainly a jaw dropping sum by any objective standard.
For its part, the media seems obsessed with the fund-raising efforts of candidates like Obama and Clinton. But given the endless media analysis and handicapping (not to mention the monstrous levels of cash at stake) it’s a shame that few are addressing whether or not donating directly to campaigns is truly an effective form of charitable giving.
To this end, I refer you to a piece written by Trent Stamp, Executive Director of Charity Navigator. Though it was written during the 2004 campaign, Stamp’s provocative and compelling arguments are even more cogent this time around:
Choosing Charities over Canididates
by Trent Stamp
Executive Director, Charity Navigator
March 1, 2004
If you are one of the millions of Americans considering supporting a political candidate with your hard-earned dollars this year, I hope you have a good reason. If your goal is to make our country better, to spend your money wisely, or to serve your own self-interests, the odds are that you would be much better off supporting one of America’s nearly one million charities. For several reasons, supporting a charitable organization is a much better idea than supporting a political candidate.
Charities are more efficient: A charity spending 25% of its budget on administrative costs, fundraising, and media is considered about average in the sector. The rest is used toward achieving its goals. A candidate, however, spends every last dime of yours on overhead, fundraising, and media. This is the nature of political campaigns. There’s nothing left at the end.
Charities are more accountable: The Internal Revenue Service (and to a fuller extent, Charity Navigator) scrutinizes the financial practices of every large non-profit in the country to make sure its funding is spent wisely and appropriately. The warp speed of political campaigns precludes any serious scrutiny of how the public’s dollars are being allocated. All we really know is how much they raised, and how much they have left. Where it actually went is anyone’s guess.
Charities are more effective: Charities increasingly have stepped in to provide programs our government once sought to deliver. Because of charities, our wetlands are being preserved, many of our homeless have shelter, hungry children are being fed, diseases are being cured, and more animals are safe. Our country is a better place because of charities. Can we say the same thing about our elected officials?
You are already paying for the candidates: From the presidential race down to your local city council races, most elections are financed with large chunks of “matching” funds comprised of taxpayer money. Like it or not, you’re already paying for these elections. You’ve paid once. Have you paid for a charity yet in the same manner? Not likely. Charities are being red-lined nationwide as budgets are axed at the local, state, and federal governmental levels. But even with the worst of financial crises — as after-school programs and food for the poor are being cut — matching funds for elections are safe. Why? Because those that benefit from the programs, the elected officials, are the ones who vote on those budgets.
Charities won’t flip-flop on you: Are you worried about the environment? You should be. But how do you know that your candidate, when elected, will care as much about the issue as they claim they do today? How do you know they won’t take the corporate money and decide the issue is a little more “complex” than they originally thought? You don’t. But what are the chances that the large environmental charity you could be supporting will make the same flip-flop? There is none, of course. They will have had a career, and an organization, built out of supporting that issue. They’re not beholden to special interests; they are the special interest. If you truly care about the issue, and not the candidate, the only one you can truly trust to work on your behalf, through thick and thin, is the charity that shares your value system.
Charities are in it for the long haul: Once the election cycle ends, the losers will go home, and the winners will celebrate the spoils. Many of the campaigns’ issues, sadly, will go back on the shelf until the next cycle begins. But for the charities–the advocates, the change-agents, and the service deliverers–the day after the election will just be another day, a day to do their jobs and try to make the world a better place. If you care more about making the world a better place than merely placing a bet on a horse in this race, the charities are a better vehicle for your funding.
Campaign deductions aren’t tax-deductible: The United States Congress recognizes a basic principle of economics in their support of charities. Charities provide a public good, and it is therefore in the interest of our entire society to support them. Accordingly, all donations from individuals are tax-deductible. Donations to candidates, however, at any level, are not tax-deductible. For your own finances, supporting a candidate is no different than buying a six-pack of beer, except you can more readily predict the results from consuming the beer.
I’m not saying that the elections of 2004 are not relevant, or that real issues don’t exist between the candidates. But they are going to hold these elections whether we support them financially or not. In 2004, vote with your ballot, not your checkbook, and save your hard-earned dollars for the people who can do the most with the money–America’s charities.
PS: If you want more in depth information on campaign spending, (how much, where it comes from, etc.) I highly recommend OpenSecrets.org, the website for the Center for Responsive Politics.