Financial transparency

The one thing I regret more than any other about my long but undistinguished school career was that I never took accounting. Looking back, all the math, science and art were useless. Who cares that I could once differentiate a partial fraction? Not once have I been asked by a congregant to explain the periodic table and all the formulae and specific values have long since faded from my memory. The ability to write an essay, a modicum of public speaking and pleasant memories of long afternoons reading under the desk at the back of the classroom are all that I take from my secular schooling.

I struggle to balance a checkbook...

But it bothers me that I never learnt the basics of accounting. I struggle to balance a checkbook, double system entry is a closed book to me and I rely on my wife to keep our accounts in order. It’s bad enough that I struggle with our personal finances, but we also run a charitable organization and when you solicit funds for public purposes you have a legal, moral and religious obligation for accountability and fiscal responsibility.

In earlier years I was much more laissez faire in my attitude. The shoe-box method of receipt storage and the she’ll-be-right attitude seemed to work for a while. But as we’ve grown, so have people’s expectations for professionalism and I’ve had to move with the times.

Settling accounts

The long and involved process of building the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was finished. The artisans and tradesmen had worked for months, each at their specialized craft. Thousands of volunteers had devoted themselves to building a palace for G‑d.

He could have been forgiven had he taken some time off for R&R…

Moses, the lead contractor, was understandably relieved to have finished the job, up to spec, on budget and on time. He could have been forgiven had he taken some time off for R&R but he had one last responsibility to complete before inaugurating the structure: he published a detailed accounting of every single last cent that had been solicited and spent on the project.

He was so faithful to his mission that the Torah is able to specify in mortifying detail how the minutest amounts of gold and silver were spent. Even the tiny silver hooks holding up the curtains were individually spread-sheeted and accounted for.

In a worthy cause

R’ Meir Shapiro, illustrious dean of my grandfather’s yeshiva in Poland, had a slightly acerbic take on the scrutiny that fundraisers are subjected to (perhaps due to the difficulties he encountered when establishing the famed Chachmei Lublin seminary).

He pointed out that when they sinned by making and worshipping the golden calf, the people bought all their gold and just one little idol was produced. And guess what, everyone was happy. No demand for accountability, just an acceptance that you have to pay for pleasure. Yet when it came to contributing to the mishkan, different standards applied. Some people gave only a single half-shekel coin and yet they demanded and received a precise reckoning.

No one is denying the responsibility on charitable organizing for open books and financial accountability. People who give of their hard-earned have a right to be assured that it’s all going to a good cause. Yet, it is sad that these same people would have no compunction at blowing a wad of gelt on a night out on the town, or a fancy electronic gadget.

Our challenge as consumers is to give to charity with largesse and carefully budget the money we lavish on luxuries.