Bechukotai. 24 May 2008

The challenge of philanthropy

The headline in the May 16, 2008 Forward read:

Israeli Police Probe Allegations
That New York Charity Funneled
Funds to Olmert-Tied Entity

It was another scandal in the world of philanthropy. Misuse of funds. Embezzlement. Abuses in fundraising. It is a curse which effects the non-profit community, across the board. How can it be avoided?

One approach can be derived from Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34. Leviticus 27, deals with vows. There is a tradition of making vows by giving up a person. Jephthah vowed that if he were victorious in battle he would sacrifice the first person he saw upon returning his home. Tragically, it was his only daughter. The Book of Judges says that she was condemned to a life of service to God. She was not allowed to marry. Hannah vowed that if she had a son, she would dedicate him---Samuel---to God.

The vows described in versus 1 through 8, are the ERECH vows. For a special reason, a person would give the VALUE of labor to the Temple. The gift was voluntary, separate from the regular sacrifice, or the half-shekel Temple tax. The vow is monetary, possibly because many Temple tasks were limited to Levites and therefore, could not be done by the person making the vow.

The vow is egalitarian and democratic in that all persons of an age range are valuated uniformly, regardless of health or wealth. However, the valuation is different for men and women. Presumably, a female had less strength and her labor would have less value.

Between the age of 20 to 60, the value is 50 shekels for a man and 30 shekels for a woman. Between the ages of five to 20, the valuation is 20 for a male and 10 for a female. Between the ages of one month to five years, the value is five shekels for a male and three shekels for a female. For age 60 and above the valuation is 15 for a male and 10 for a female.

If a person is too poor to pay, he shall go before a designated priest, who shall assess what he could pay, exempting the value of his shelter, tools and clothing.

Leviticus 27 implies that the payments were directly made to the priests, who had discretion on how to use it.

The way the proceeds of these vows were handled is described in Second Kings, Chapter 12.

During the reign of King Jehoash, the Temple was 145 years old and in need of repair and restoration. The King declared that all the voluntary and regular contributions be given to the priests who were supposed to use the money to pay the workers for repairs. However, the work was falling behind schedule and it was suspected that the priests were keeping the money, possibly waiting until there was enough money to pay for all the work in advance, so they would not have to use their own funds.

So the King declared that all contributions---the voluntary contributions as well as the annual tax---were to go directly to the Temple treasury. A lock box was placed in the courtyard so that everyone who came to the Temple could make a deposit. All the money donated was to go to the restoration fund. None of the funds were to go to purchase ritual objects.

When the lock box was full, a committee of two---the King’s scribe and the Kohen Gadol---would empty the lock box and bag and count the money. A committee of two was a security measure, so that an individual priest could not misuse the funds. The procedure is similar to that in hospitals where at the end of a shift, two nurses must inventory the narcotics.

The King’s scribe and Kohen Gadol would deliver the money to overseer of the workmen, who would pay the woodcutters and builders, masons and hewers of stone and to purchase lumber and quarried stones, and make any other expenses for the repairs.

The text says that the King’s scribe and the Kohen Gadol “did not make an accounting with the men into whose hand they gave the money to pay out to the workmen, for they acted with integrity.”

This verse supports the Talmudic rule that those who collect or distribute charity funds are not required to provide an exact accounting, because it is incumbent on the community to select people of integrity who can be trusted to carry out their assignments honestly and properly.

One way to avoid philanthropic abuse is for charities and communities to insist that employees have high standards of integrity---even if an audit will be done.