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Tracking the Jewish Charitable World’s Finances

A new investigative report follows the money—all $26 billion of it

Batya Ungar-Sargon
March 26, 2014

An important piece of investigative journalism quietly slipped onto the web this week when the Forward published Part 1 of a new series, “26 Billion Bucks: The Jewish Charity Industry Uncovered.” The series is the result of Josh Nathan-Kazis’ investigation into 3,600 Jewish charities, in which he identified and reviewed tax documents filed by these organizations, analyzing how they get their money and what they do with it.

The impressive piece explains where Jewish money comes from and where it’s going—a journey with surprising results. For example, Nathan-Kazis reports,

The Forward can now describe a Jewish apparatus that, despite extensive rhetoric about the importance of Jewish education, still dedicates the largest share of its donor dollars to Israel-related causes. It’s an apparatus that benefits massively from the U.S. federal government and many state and local governments, in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars in government grants, billions in tax-deductible donations and billions more in program fees paid for with government funds. And it’s an apparatus that requires vast resources to support itself, spending $2.3 billion a year on management and fundraising — and $93 million on galas alone.

That’s right: $93 million in galas go into supporting what Nathan-Kazis calls “a tax-exempt Jewish communal apparatus that operates on the scale of a Fortune 500 company” and reports net assets of $26 billion. “That’s more than the Las Vegas Sands Corp., which owns casinos all over the world,” he writes. “It’s about the same as the CBS Corp. which owns 29 TV stations, 126 radio stations, the CBS Television Network and Simon & Schuster. The Jewish communal network of tax-exempt groups employs as many people as the Ford Motor Co.”

Part 1 concludes that, “Of the $3.7 billion in donations that the functional agencies of the communal apparatus receive in a year, 38% goes to Israel-focused groups. That’s more than any other category, including education, which gets just 20% of donations.”

Organizations associated with Israel were found to have the most net assets—$9 million—while organizations dealing with education and healthcare reported just $1 million each. Israel-related organizations also reported the most non-governmental grants, with $1,282 million, compared to health care and social services ($772 million) and education ($770 million). Compare these donations with the costs associated with drumming them up, and something interesting emerges. While healthcare and social services spend $102 million to raise their $772 million and education related organizations spend $78 million to bring in $770 million, Israel related organizations spends just $28 million to raise their $1,282 million. In other words, Israel-related fundraising is extremely effective.

Hopefully the rest of the series will offer readers even more of a window into the world of Jewish charities.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.