What would Maimonides think of Kiva?

(First blog Milestone reached: a blog post inspired by a reader’s comment. The next milestone will be when the same thing happens and I don’t know the reader personally).

A blog reader of mine brought up Kiva in response to yesterday’s post, which I thought was interesting – both because I didn’t mention Kiva and because it was on my mind too. So what would Maimonides think of Kiva?

In Maimonides’ discussion of charity, he says that you should not put money into the tzedakah box unless you know that the person responsible for the box is faithful, wise and trustworthy. If not, you’re not sure if the donation will help improve a person’s life.

This sense of distrust has become more common in recent decades, especially in international charity. There’s a sense, fair or not, that little has been accomplished with the $2.3 trillion the West has spent on foreign aid in the last 5 decades, since much of the world is still very poor. William Easterly in his book The White Man’s Burden has been one of the most vocal critics in this camp, explaining the many failings of international charity and international aid. On the other end of the spectrum, Jeff Sachs argues in The End of Poverty that we could end global poverty by increasing global giving.

(There’s a book’s worth of discussion that this opens up, which I’ll avoid for now and just point out that the US GDP last year was just under $14 trillion, so if my math is right the total spending on foreign aid by the West over 50 years is equivalent to two months’ worth of the U.S. GDP. Two months worth of output for .25 billion people vs. 600 months’ worth for ~3 billion people? So maybe it’s not that much after all…)

While Easterly’s focus is more on international NGOs (e.g. the World Bank), someone like my friend who raised the question about Kiva can’t be blamed for thinking, “Why would my $25 make a difference, and how can I know it’s being spent wisely?” To me this is just a step removed from the legitimate fear that the tzedakah collector is unfaithful or dishonest. The worry is that your money goes into the box with the intent of helping someone, but that someone isn’t helped as a result.

To me this helps explain why most giving in the United States is local and through religious organizations: it is much easier to feel confident that your donation will make a difference when you personally know the person asking you to give, are giving as part of an established community, and have first-hand exposure to the problems your donation is meant to address.

So what would Maimonides make of Kiva? There are lots of organizations doing international work that are incredibly effective and trustworthy stewards of people’s charity (yes, I think that Acumen Fund is one of them). The brilliance of Kiva is that it has found a way to create that personal connection and the sense of empowerment on the part of the donor, allaying the fear (conscious or not) that the $25 donation will be lost in a sea of larger donations, or will never reach its intended recipient. Kiva has used the Internet to get rid of the tzedakah box altogether, allowing the giver to “give directly to the poor without being asked” (Level 5 in terms of honorability, for those keeping score).

My own hope is that this is increasing the number of people giving and increasing people’s comfort with and habit of giving – especially by people in their 20s and 30s –and that this will lay the foundation for more generosity, education, and awareness of the problems of international poverty and the innovative solutions now available to address these challenges.

Reflections on Maimonides’ 8 levels of Charity (tzedakah)

Good timing. Just as I’ve started this blog I came across a description of charity (the Hebrew word tzedakah) by the 12th century Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides

Maimonides wrote a code of Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah, based on the Rabbinic oral tradition, and he described charity from the least to the most honorable as follows:

8. When donations are given grudgingly.

7. When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.

6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.

5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.

4. When the recipient is aware of the donor’s identity, but the donor does not know the identity of the recipient.

3. When the donor is aware of the recipient’s identity, but the recipient is unaware of the source.

2. When the donor and recipient are unknown to each other.

1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.

This got me thinking about what motivates people to give. I asked this question of someone today and she said that people give because they want to see an impact, want to see a positive change in the world. I think that is true, but there’s more to it than that. People give for lots of reasons, many laudable, some base.

Maimonides suggests that all giving is not equal, that the motivation behind the gift has some moral content. My reading is that the greatest gifts are those that create a relationship of equals between the donor and the recipient. Otherwise, the gift can create subservience or obligation, can undermine the dignity of the recipient, and can keep the recipient subjugated to the giver and in a constant position of need. This means that we, people in a position to give and people who encourage other people to give, need to think about the power dynamics that we create, and about ways to make the dignity of the recipient paramount in everything we do.

What about times when it’s better not to be anonymous, when a gift can be a signal? There are times when putting one’s name on a list of donors, on the side of a building, or on the name of the world’s biggest Foundation, can be important as a statement about what can be accomplished with great wealth – a statement that can inspire others to act. Or a gift can make you part of a group of like-minded people, who are coming together to make a change in the world.

I don’t know how to unpack the moral pieces of this puzzle, but I think it’s worth some more thought. I’d love comments on this one in particular.