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Saturday, December 20, 2014

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Donors should trust the trustees

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Poor Jim Balsillie. Over the past year or so, he has watched as the company that he led and grew into an international success story has made misstep after misstep. Research in Motion has lost 90 per cent of its value amid a feeling it can no longer compete with Apple or Google.

Forced out of RIM, Balsillie, one of Canada’s greatest philanthropists, can’t even give his money away. This month, York University’s faculty recently voted to reject a $30 million donation from his Centre for International Governance. The school claimed the donation came with too many strings attached, including veto power over some faculty appointments. For the university world, in which academic freedom is sacrosanct, such conditions were deemed unacceptable.

It’s most inspiring to see people turn down large sums of money if acceptance would jeopardize principles they hold dear. Perhaps those in the academic world, enjoying the benefit of tenure, can more readily ignore the economic fallout of turning down millions of dollars. And while one can debate whether these particular principles are correct, this most honourable display of intellectual honesty raises the interesting question of the proper relationship between donor and recipient. There’s no doubt that many, and likely most, donations come with many strings attached, some overtly mentioned and other implied, at times quite strongly, even if never stated.

Jewish philanthropy, tzedakah, has traditionally been composed of two parallel tracks – public and private, corresponding to what we might call taxes and charity. Members of autonomous Jewish communities were taxed, with funds going to pay for the necessities of Jewish communal life, primarily free education for young people.

Just as governments rely on the private sector to fund many worthy causes, individual Jews were expected to do the same. In the western world, where Jewish communities no longer have coercive powers of taxation, tzedakah is completely voluntary. And rabbinic authorities have generally assumed that individuals will direct their monies as they see fit. With needs and requests far outstripping the abilities of even the wealthiest of donors, choices need to be made.

We should expect donors to fund projects that align with their goals. Questions can be asked, and if the answers are unsatisfactory, donations can be directed elsewhere. And, theoretically, conditions can be made as to the use of the money. Provided that at the end of the day money is given away, one can and should give to those institutions that meet donors’ stated objectives. The problem is that often the conditions are not necessarily the most appropriate, and the strings may hamper rather than help those in need.

Jewish law demands that those in charge of charitable funds be of unimpeachable character, people who command our fullest trust and confidence. It is questions of integrity, even more than policies, that should concern donors. When we’re confident that our money is in good hands, we should thank God that we are blessed to be a donor and give the money with a full heart and with no strings attached. Let us trust the trustees of those funds to use them in the most appropriate manner.

Send comments to rabbijay@torahinmotion.org.

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