The Highest Form of Charity Doesn’t Require a Gift

According to the famous 12th century Jewish sage Maimonides:

“The highest degree of charity, exceeded by none, is that of one who assists a poor person by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him to find employment – in a word, by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid.”

In other words, acting as a resource to help one become self-sufficient is more valuable than an outright gift. The logic behind this rationale is powerful from several perspectives: First, assisting one on their way to supporting themselves and their family hopefully makes the need for assistance only temporary as opposed to a permanent fixture. Second, as Sir Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sachs describes, “The idea that the highest form of charity is to find someone a job speaks volumes about its [Judaism’s] understanding of human dignity – people don’t want to be dependent.” Giving someone a job, putting them in business, or offering them a bona fide loan is not an outright gift. It is temporary assistance whereby they retain the obligation to pay it back or work for it.

Enabling this self-sufficiency can be accomplished without ever writing a check. Sometimes a simple introduction or personal vouching can help secure much needed employment. In times when funds are needed, they may be structured as a lending service so that they aren’t an outright gift, but rather a bona fide loan that is paid back over time. This idea was recently employed to great effect by Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus who championed a program of granting microloans to help poor people start small businesses. Recipients of these loans were given an opportunity to become self-sufficient as opposed to having their basic needs covered. Looking elsewhere, on a recent trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo we were introduced to a situation where local organizations were partnering with an electric utility to bring electricity to first time commercial users to enable them to transform their operations and increase profitability. There are countless opportunities to utilize this concept creatively in ways that can transform individuals and communities. While there may be the opportunity to establish a new avenue to employ this tactic, our guess is that there are many existing organizations that would welcome additional funding sources.

We believe the opportunity for this “highest form of charity” is as needed today as ever, both domestically and abroad. Often these are good, well-intended individuals that simply need a “break” to get them started on their way. A benefit-focused look at the needs of various communities can help you find the right recipient for your assistance. One great example of the need and opportunity is illustrated by Starbucks’ initiative to help disenfranchised young people find a self-sustaining job. The outpouring of applicants and positive outcomes that resulted emphatically demonstrates that many of those living in hardship just want a shot, and once they are given that shot, they will perform.

Helping someone find a job or start a business is only one aspect of “the highest form of charity.” Sometimes people are burdened and subsequently consumed, if not paralyzed, by temporary hardships. The unplanned expenditures that result can be devastating for someone living month to month without any savings. In the absence of temporary assistance, these episodes can trigger an economic downward spiral that has dire long-term consequences. Being able to offer a temporary bridge loan can be all that is necessary to resolve matters in a way that eliminates the need for dependency.

We wholeheartedly embrace this form of assistance charity, and in fact continue to explore how we can be more effective and organized along these lines. Specifically, the Greenstein Family Foundation is intrigued by the possibility of a creating a resource and clearinghouse for community members in temporary but drastic need. We believe that our community is filled with capable, ambitious and good individuals that just need an outstretched arm of assistance to help get them on their way.

Helping someone find a job or channeling your business activities to one in need likely costs nothing and yet has the potential to be an enormously valuable and long-reaching gift. This is something many of us can do without much effort, provided we are aware of the situation. We encourage others to be mindful of those situations where they can perform the highest and most dignified form of charity.