Charities plan. God laughs.

A couple of months ago, non-profit execs like me had it all worked out. We love our annual routines and our quarterly updates. We relish the challenge of planning our Passover and New Year campaigns.

We enjoy knowing the needs we’ll be meeting over the coming months, and working to make all the necessary arrangements. We are authors of aims, objectives, and assessment criteria. We are worshippers of metrics and statistics — especially the numbers we can highlight in bold text in colorful reports, to prove just how important our work is. 

But then comes a virus, too tiny to be seen by the naked eye, and everything changes. All of our comfortable guidelines for assessing return on investment, the impact of our work, and measurement of our success need tweaking, rewriting, or even abandoning altogether. 

We like to think the metrics enable us to perform at our peak. Ostensibly, yes. But they also serve to protect us from the awesome reality of how huge the needs are compared to what any of us can manage to provide. They are our safety blanket.

The criteria we used to evaluate our work a month ago don’t work any more. Today, we have no statistical models to assess.

The crushing loneliness that this virus causes has no precedent. The elderly are confined, for their own protection, at home, indefinitely. There are people who have just lost a loved one and are sitting shiva alone because they too may be infected. 

Imagine you run a charity for the elderly and you’re facing a stark choice: Keep in touch with the four out of five people you help who have access to the internet. Or spend your time and money getting the other one in five online.  How do you make decisions like this?

If you run an organization that provides food, like my charity Leket, Israel’s national food bank, how much extra of our anticipated annual budget should we spend during these crisis months? 

We are accustomed to making projections based on data, like how long this crisis will continue and how much demand for our services will grow. But we just don’t know.

One thing I am certain of is that, to be the best in these times, we need to have the courage to take decisions that won’t look good in our end-of-year metrics. 

Let’s focus on a very real decision Leket faced in recent days. Unemployment in Eilat, the Red Sea resort at Israel’s southern tip, is at nearly 70%, up from just 3.3% at the start of March. People there need food — but it’s four-hour’s from central Israel.

Should Leket drive through the desert to deliver them food, or concentrate on the many hungry in Israel’s main population centers? If you say feed all Israelis, regardless of location, I agree. 

But do you also subscribe to the “common sense” view that a good charity is one with low overheads? Plenty of philanthropists do. If we go the extra mile to deliver food to where it’s needed instead of where it’s local, our overheads go up. And we become a less attractive cause to some donors. 

We need to put menchkeit over metrics. We have to prioritize assistance over assessments. We must be ready to prioritize need over numbers.

Our understanding of needs constantly changes. Six months ago, a charity raising money to buy ventilators in bulk would have been seen as eccentric. Today we’d say it was visionary.

We don’t know what the future holds. Of course, careful planning still has a place in the nonprofit world, but this crisis is challenging some of the management-style assumptions on which we’ve come to base our planning, and leaving all of us far more modest. This crisis is bringing charities back to basics. It’s getting us back in touch with that ultimate assessment criteria: Compassion.

At the Pesach Seder, we speak of things we can no longer do, like offering a paschal sacrifice — which we haven’t done for two millennia.  And things we can, like inviting people to join our meal.

But this year the offer we’ve made for countless generations – “Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat,” will ring hollow.

Our doors will remain closed, and no wayfarer in need of a meal will cross our threshold. But I know that when I read the words from the Haggadah it will only increase my determination to feed the hungry on every other day of the coming months. I hope you’ll be able to help me.

About the Author
Joseph Gitler is the founder and chairman of Leket Israel -- The National Food Bank, the leading food rescue non-profit organization that rescues fresh, perishable food, working with 195 non-profits throughout the country to distribute nutritious food to over 175,000 Israelis weekly.
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