In a widely reported incident that occured recently in Brooklyn, New York, four people who ran a phony charity scheme targeting the Jewish residents of America were arrested and charged with, among other felonies, embezzlement and tax evasion. According to the charges these four solicited money for charities in Israel but apparently stole several millions of dollars that they raised and used the money to pay for their own personal expenses, including mortgages and vacations. They were said to have been raising funds for as many as 19 different legitimately named charities but only two of the institutions were actually registered as charities in Israel. In the end the four have been charged with diverting the money to their own pockets. It is further alleged that money came in so rapidly that their bookkeeping could not keep up and as a result they bounced checks and accrued bank fees as high as $65,000 which they are said to have happily paid.  

For a variety of reasons the news of their arrest gave me serious pause as I went through the next few days. We were all raised to believe that if someone put out their hand in need we are obliged to assist them and we should – but this incident in particular – gave me the opportunity to evaluate some of the people I interact with around the charities that solicit from me and my communitty regularly – and there are quite a few of them.

Just a few recent examples:The meshulach/collector stopped at my house the other day. He said I gave him $18 last year and could I give him at least the same amount this year. He claimed to have documentation to prove that I gave him the money but could not produce it.

Soon after he left a woman came by telling me that she was a widow with young children and needed help caring for them.

When I was in Israel a charity collector who fancies himself a friend of mine tracked me down. He knows all of my addresses. Of course he had his agenda, I know it was not just being a friend.

Last month a woman claiming to be collecting to help fund needy children so that they might spend a few weeks in a summer camp called the house and in a most aggressive style insisted that we send a check for several thousand dollars. My wife told the woman that when she financially helps to send our children and grandchildren to summer camp maybe we could begin to assist her. Of course there are many more such examples..

This column is not, however, about giving charity or the people who collect for those charities in particular or even so much about helping others – which I truly believe we are all obligated to do. Charity is not the primary issue at this moment – honesty and truth is. How can we know the veracity of those who approach us for assistance? How can we be sure that the hard earned funds we donate go to the causes that we think they are going to? Do the charities even exist? If the charity does exist are the funds being used for the activities that they were supposedly earmarked for? Are those receiving the funds needy and appreciative?

True, there are websites that evaluate charitable organizations but some institutions do not voluntarily comply with reporting the amounts they collect, their operating costs or their tax filings. Some communities evaluate those who come to collect and if found to meet the criterion that are established are given a document indicating that they are honest. Those documents are easily forged. Still I give and I try not to think too hard about each donation. Yet, I wonder if it is correct or honest to give without doing more serious homework to be sure that the money goes to the causes and people it should. Perhaps developing a clearer set of standards would help. I certainly do not want to give to people who are stealing nor do I want to give money to able bodied individuals who see my funds as their entitlements.

So how can we evaluate charity honesty? I have given and will give more but for now I think I give up!