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Smart Tzedakah: Seven Basic Principles

Written by Benji Levy and Michael Bloch


Strategic giving and great philanthropy are not easy. While there are many different views and much literature devoted to the topic, here we summarize seven principles that serve us in developing our strategic approach and guide the way we work with others to give mindfully through Smart Tzedakah.

Next week, millions of Jews around the world will begin their Seder night with the words, “Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover.” This powerful call to reach out and help those less fortunate than ourselves comes just as we begin to recall the foundational story of our nation, highlighting the integral part that tzedaka holds in Jewish ethos and practice.


The Hebrew word tzedaka, however, is often mistranslated. It literally means “justice”, yet most translate it as “charity.” These are opposites, as charity suggests that we give despite the fact that the recipient is undeserving, while justice suggests that we give because the recipient is deserving. Clearly, the traditional idea of charity is not what is being described here, but rather a form of redistribution of wealth as a form of justice. Whereas one instinctively gives from an emotional place of compassionate kindness or mercy (chesed or rachamim in Hebrew), the underlying sentiment of this idea is to give with intelligence and discipline.

Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish sages, famously outlined eight levels of tzedaka. Inherent in his methodology of grading the different levels is the fact that there are better and worse ways of giving. Three themes emerge as important factors:

  • What we give

  • How we give

  • The impact of our giving

This approach pushes us to think through the best way we deploy our charitable resources to optimize the what, how and impact. It is for this reason, that we define our approach as Smart Tzedakah.

Giving can be great. But great giving is hard. Whether physically close by or distant, recipients often live in a different world from ours. Data on real needs and impact is often unavailable and lots of emotions influence the process (in fact, playing on these emotions is often the first strategy of fundraisers). While professional standards in the philanthropic sector are usually different to those of the corporate world, the challenges of ego and competing interests are still a factor. Due diligence on recipients is also difficult and objective cross-sector analysis is lacking. Consequently, much giving is driven “bottom-up” in a more reactive and opportunist sense, rather than strategically decided upon “top-down” from the giver’s values and aspirations to affect meaningful change.

Many sophisticated philanthropists and foundations have actively tried to overcome these obstacles as they professionalize their giving, however, in discussions with dozens of leaders, we found that they were always looking to upgrade in this space. For this reason, we have elaborated seven basic principles, which may not be revolutionary, but together help frame how we approach Smart Tzedakah:

  1. Support strong leaders. Work with effective leaders who know the needs of the charity intimately. Be sure that the leaders of what you support are strong and passionate with a real track record and true expertise in the field.

  2. Treat the cause, not just the symptoms. Focus on helping people sustain themselves, rather than just providing them with sustenance. Help people manage their budgets, rather than just paying for their debts.

  3. Give as close to the final recipients as you can. Avoid chains of intermediaries in which each part takes a share of the funds before passing them on closer to the final recipients.

  4. Look for leverage. Highlight organizations that mobilize many volunteers, since every dollar given enables the work of many volunteers, or those nonprofits which partner with the government or (confirmed) matching mechanisms to leverage their impact.

  5. Check the efficiency of recipient organizations. Overhead is not always bad (e.g., a well-executed fundraising budget can catalyze exponential growth), but check key areas such as the highest salary levels and expense buckets to make sure they are justified.

  6. Objectively measure the impact and value delivered for your investment. Ask for or create impact metrics (e.g., cost of helping one recipient; organizations percentage operating costs to amounts raised and distributed etc.) and compare it across other similar organizations.

  7. Revisit and revitalize your strategy. Don’t be constrained by history, preconceived notions and relations. Take a clean sheet look every few years.

The world was created in seven stages and we hope these seven principles add to the empowerment of others to recreate worlds. Ultimately, everyone should develop an approach that works for them, and having a considered framework is good practice for anyone who wants to engage in Smart Tzedakah.



Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy was the previous CEO of Mosaic United. Michael Bloch is a former senior partner at McKinsey & Company. Together they founded Israel Impact Partners: Israel-Impact.com.


This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post: https://www.jpost.com/opinion/smart-tzedakah-efficiently-effectively-professionalized-giving-opinion-662342

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