Q. Our youth group is always looking for sustainable sources of funding. In our city, non-profit organizations are allowed to host gambling activities on a limited basis. Is this an ethical way of raising money for a worthy cause?
A. Many religious organizations have learned that games like bingo can be a big help in balancing the budget. At the same time, it is exactly these organizations which should be sensitive to the ethical issues raised by gambling.
The Talmud identifies two distinct problems with gambling: its exploitative nature and its underworld image.
The problem of exploitation arises if the player is not adequately informed of his chances of winning or is lured into playing without his full consent. When gambling is used for fund-raising tool, then the players are aware that the “house” is making money off of them, and they are probably adequately informed as long as you are not taking an unusual or outrageous cut.
Still, consent is a problem if a player is a compulsive gambler. The gambling addict’s participation is not really in his control, so his consent is not complete. So you should make sure that you are not catering to these kind of participants.
The image problem begins with the fact that people who earn money honestly are usually pretty reluctant to gamble with it. So gambling establishments tend to attract unsavory types who like to unload and show off ill-gotten gains. Let’s face it; most professional gamblers have little in common with the loveable, benign Nathan Detroit character from Guys and Dolls. You probably don’t want the image of your youth group to be too closely identified with real-life high-rollers.
So, if your gambling event is meant to be an entertaining evening for people who are happy to support your organization, by all means go ahead. But if you want to create a business which will cater to gambling aficionados, then you must be extra careful not to take advantage of people nor to condone gambling as a way of life. This should be considered as an emergency measure only.
You’re on safe ground if everyone feels they’re in a “win-win” situation: either they make a little money, or they give much-needed help to a worthy cause.
SOURCES: Talmud Sanhedrin 24b; Igrot Moshe OC IV:35, EHE III:40.