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If a charity sends me a gift, do I have to give a donation?

Q. Charity organizations often send gifts as an inducement to donors. Is this practice ethical? If I keep the present, do I have to give a donation?

A. Jewish tradition acknowledges and esteems the power of gifts and the need to use them responsibly.

There is no question that giving a gift does, and should, create a certain feeling of obligation in the receiver. In fact, this is one of the beautiful things about gift giving; it is part of a larger process of creating bonds of affection, obligation and ultimately commitment among people.

It is for this very reason that Jewish law is so strict that judges should not accept any kind of gifts from litigants, as we pointed out in a previous column. [See: Pauper Presents] It is really inevitable that the recipient will look favorably on the donor.

In fact, the Talmud tells us that the sense of obligation is so great that when an influential person deigns to accept a present, it is as if he is bestowing a benefit to the giver! By agreeing to accept the gift, he is showing his willingness to be beholden to the donor.

Because of this expectation that the accepter will somehow requite the gift, Scripture tells us to be very selective in accepting gifts. “He who despises gifts will thrive” (Proverbs 15:27). A person should feel comfortable with accepting a sense of obligation or at least of gratitude towards the giver. Conversely, refusing a gift may be very awkward for the very reason that it may show a desire to avoid incurring such a feeling of obligation.

It is certainly legitimate for charities to try to create a feeling of good will and commitment among potential donors, and one way of doing this is by sending small gifts. But great care needs to be taken to make sure that this practice doesnג€™t create confusion and resentment among donors. For this reason, I would like to propose, as a suggestion only, a number of guidelines that can help make this subject more effective and reasonable.

1. Gifts should never be intrusive or demanding. If a donor receives a large Torah book, he may be delighted. But if not, then this very generous gesture on the part of the institution will obligate the recipient either to find extra room on the shelf or to make a trip to the geniza (because holy works should not be thrown out and need to be disposed of in this dignified way.) The institution should consider this matter carefully.

2. To the greatest extent possible, the gift should say something about the institution. First of all, this is the most effective way of creating genuine good will, and second of all it avoids the appearance that the gift is really just a kind of bribe. Many organizations send CD-ROM disks with an interesting movie about their activities; such a promotion is ideal because it really says something about the organization, requires almost no space, and doesnג€™t need any kind of special disposal.

If the faculty or students of the institution put together some kind of publication, it is best to send it to people who the organization is fairly certain are well-disposed towards it. To others it may be a burden.

3. To prevent feelings of frustration and confusion, the letter accompanying the gift should explicitly state that it comes with no strings attached and that the recipient is free to take it even if he or she has no intention of donating.

(I would also add a fourth ethical consideration: gifts like these shouldnג€™t be used to evade taxes. Sometimes the value of an expensive gift needs to be subtracted from the amount of the donation in calculating the tax deduction.)

In the final analysis, it is simply not practical to refuse or send back such a gift, and therefore the recipient should not feel that the use or acceptance of the gift creates any obligation to make a donation. Ideally, charity organizations should carefully choose the gifts and the recipients, so that the gift sends a meaningful message about the institution and creates a genuine desire to help.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 7a