Thursday, June 01, 2006

Tzedakah Tatzil M'Advertising Expenses

Krum is blogging again on sketchy fundraising tactics. I receive the Kupat Hair mailings as well and find them offensive on so many levels. A while back, we got one proudly sharing this story:
"At the conclusion of the meeting, the gedolim were presented with the name of a contributor from the United States who had, only two days earlier, donated $18,000 to Kupat Ha'ir. The man, who was facing a trial for tax evasion to the tune of millions of dollars, had requested that the rabbanim, shlit"a, pray for him.
The gedolim took the sheet of paper and began praying for his success.
Two days before Rosh Chodesh Ellul ..... the United States government decided to drop the charges against him. ..... "It is clearly yad Hashem" the man cried out. He contributed an additional $3,600 in gratitude to Hashem for his rescue. In this case, it was clearly evident that a tzaddik's prayer makes an impression in Shamayim."
Some more comments on Kupat Ha'ir's brochures can be found here, here, and here.

On the subject of fundraising...

In a recent post, I responded to a question from a reader as to my thoughts on the Oorah CD. (You can see the album cover and listen to the songs (with video) here.) I wrote:
I've been meaning to write about the broader issue of using artists to promote tzedakah, or should I say, using tzedakah to promote artists. I'll try to get to it soon. In short, there is a tension between using one's talents for mitzvos, which is clearly a good thing, and taking advantage of a mitzvah to promote a personal agenda. The dividing line isn't always clear. This CD can serve as a good illustration of the positive and negative sides of this issue.
People should use their strengths for the good, so a singer using music to help raise funds is definitely a positive. Or is it? In this case, Oorah featured five singers' tracks on a CD that was enclosed in a shrinkwrapped packet together with the brochure for their Chinese auction fundraiser. The cover of the CD sleeve (and the CD itself) feature pictures of four of the five singers; Yisroel Williger, Yaakov Shwekey, Shloime Daskal, and Mordechai Ben David. Curiously, Shloime Dachs was omitted. The idea seems to have been to attract interest in the auction booklet by using the CD as an incentive.

On the plus side of the equation, the singers volunteered their time (I assume it was volunteered) to raise awareness of a fundraiser for this Tzedakah. Whether it was a justified expense by Oorah, whether it worked at all, or whether it was a worthwhile project are separate questions, but from this perspective, this was an admirable move by the singers. Any entertainer who donates services to a charity for no remuneration is admirable, in my view.

To my mind, an important question is whether Oorah should be involved in promoting any entertainers at all. In this case, Oorah is clearly trading on the singers' name recognition, and in exchange has invested greatly in promoting them, even going so far as to find material for some of them and to pay for having the music arranged and performed. In fact, I'd wager that more copies of this CD were pressed than of some of these artists' recent albums. So, at this point, IMO these singers have been remunerated quite handsomely by Oorah's heavily marketing them to the community. This is far more exposure than they'd have gotten simply by donating their services as a prize to a Chinese auction or the like. (Something that Oorah and others have offered in the past.) Oorah is delivering their business card, one that would cost them at least $1 apiece to produce on their own (not counting studio and music production costs), to many potential clients. That's thousands of dollars worth of benefits. Now, there might not be anything wrong with a straight up business arrangement, but this kind of quid pro quo doesn't feel right.

Please don't take my word for this. Take a look at the cover art and at the credits on the videos. It's quite clear. Factoring in the widespread distribution of these CD's and videos, these artists got quite a sweetheart deal for a few hours' work.

Now, this episode by itself might not be enough of an issue, but there have been other clear-cut cases of exploitation whereby singers used a tzedakah for personal gain. A few that come to mind are a past HASC concert at which one "name" singer was paid $50,000 for his appearance, and a CD (Gideon Levine's "The Best of the Best vol.2") that was ostensibly released to benefit the "Child Life Society", but according to CY magazine only donated $1 from the sale of each CD to the organization.

It's clear that there's a line, but where is it? In my opinion, if it's a case where the singer isn't directly rewarded, or if it's a case of zeh neheneh, v'zeh lo chaser, where both sides clearly benefit and neither one is being used, then I think participation by artists is appropriate. For example, many artists volunteer their services to organizations, to sing at fundraisers or as an auction prize to be auctioned off to benefit the charity. In those cases, I think it's fair for the Tzedakah to acknowledge their participation by mentioning it (in an appropriate manner) in their ad for the event, a dinner journal, or the like.

If it's a case where the benefits to the artist far outweigh the benefit to the charity, though, then I think the promotion really needs to be rethought because it makes the artists and the organization look bad. In this case, I'd think that Oorah's board should take a close look at this method of promotion. It doesn't make the organization look good and it may make the singers look like they're exploiting the situation. Even when they're not.