The Chinese Auction: Is it tzedaka or is it something else?

This comment was posted by Toby in response to last weeks post on tzedaka: I really liked it and thought I would share it with you.

Chinese Auctions are, of course, neither Chinese nor an auction. But the question many are asking these days is, are they tzedakah? Or, more specifically, should Jewish institutions be promoting this as a way to give tzedakah? Does one need to dangle a late-model van, a custom-made sheitel, a trip to Israel in front of people before they’ll open their wallets for a worth cause? Are we training ourselves away from purer forms of giving?

On the positive side of the Chinese Auction boom are several points.

First, there’s the result: Thousands upon thousands of dollars have been raised for institutions and causes that may never have been raised otherwise. The Chinese auction expands the institution’s reach beyond people who are naturally interested in its welfare to the general public, whose only interest might be the buffet, a night out and a crack at some of those fabulous prizes. No doubt, mountains of good have come from the money Chinese auctions have wrested out of the hands of those whose motives might be purely self-serving.

Secondly, there’s the mitzvah: we learn that doing a mitzvah for the wrong reasons, in most cases, still counts as a mitzvah. Do it, the commentators tell us, and the right reasons will follow. The important thing is to do it. That’s why teachers are allowed to offer candy and prizes to children for their learning. First get them into the habit of learning – let them love it and enjoy it – then, let the right reasons come.

Furthermore, motivations are not divided into bad and good. There are degrees. Someone who does a mitzvah for the honor it brings – his name on the new wing – is not in the same league as someone who donates anonymously. One person gives so his business associates won’t think he’s going broke, another because his neighbor is on the board of directors, another because the organization has his rabbi’s endorsement. Often, these motivations are mixed together with the purer one of, “it’s a good cause and it’s my duty to support it.”

Yet, there is still a negative side, something vaguely distasteful about all this “stuff” being proffered to entice would-be givers.

Isn’t there supposed to come a time when the child no longer needs to earn a peanut chew for his learning? Are we setting ourselves back spiritually by linking more and more tzedakah to grand prizes? If someone becomes accustomed to giving only when there’s a material incentive, will he later be willing to give when all that’s sent is an envelope, and maybe a letter.

Perhaps. Or perhaps he’ll feel that, after paying a $10 admission fee and buying $50 worth of tickets that won him nothing, he’s given enough.

Another negative aspect of the trend is the expense it creates for the institution. Much is made of the amount of overhead charitable institutions incur. Generally, people don’t like to give money that will go to pay agencies, executive salaries, car leases – even postage. They want money for the hungry to buy food, money for yeshivos to promote Torah learning and buy books or computers or scholarships.

But the competitiveness of the “giving” market has become such that, without a professional media campaign, expensive fund-raising events and plenty of overhead, an organization’s message can barely be heard from beneath the pile of solicitations. By requiring more pizzazz to grab donors’ attention, the donors themselves are creating the need for an all-devouring overhead budget.

One experienced yeshiva fundraiser made this sobering observation: “If people gave half of what they now give, but gave it directly without a dinner or event, the yeshivos would be making twice what they’re making on donations.”

The expense of dinners and other fundraising events typically consumes half to three-quarters of the money donated. They not only cost money, but they carry a spiritual price tag as well. Whether it’s five course gourmet dinner at a plush hotel or a Chinese Auction brimming with luxury prizes, conspicuous consumption is the order of the day. Nonetheless, almost every institution has been forced into the position of producing these extravagant fundraisers because that is the way the world – even our world — now operates.

Oorah is in the same boat, navigating the same rough waters. Years of experience have proven conclusively that a simple letter about our kiruv efforts, with a simple plea for support, would bring in a tiny fraction of what the Chinese Auction produces. If we were to cling to the principle that people should give without ulterior motives, we might succeed in making a point, but we would fail in our primary mission, which is to put as many children as possible into yeshiva. Our message might echo faintly through the Jewish world, but our failure would resonate thunderously for generations to come.

Thus we and our supporters are drawn into the strange logic of promoting materialism to save Jewish souls. For Oorah, the Chinese Auction has proven successful, and its success depends upon presenting prizes that people find desirable. Desire for such items may not be a spiritually healthy trait to foster, but this is not an issue Oorah can afford to address right now, when the loss of Jews to secular life is at a critical point of no return.

By whatever means we now have at our disposal, we – Oorah and our supporters – are trying desperately to put out a fire. When there’s a fire, you use what works. We hope you’ll be a part of our “bucket brigade” and take part in this vital fund raising effort.

Just running a Chinese auction calls upon the hard work and good will of dozens, if not hundreds of people and certainly brings out the charitable instinct in them. It opens up new streams of support for vital causes, and transforms money that might otherwise land in the cash register of a restaurant or movie theater into money donated to avodas Hashem. The validity of this approach is an issue rising in our community’s consciousness, but an answer – if there is one – may take much more time, thought and discussion to emerge.