I head a tsedoko organization and we have an annual banquet. I want to maximize attendance at the banquet. If I can tell people that they can use their ma’aser money to pay for the cost of attending the banquet many more people will come. The admission fee entitles them to receive a sumptuous meal and they automatically also receive a present. Additionally, we raffle off many items. One must pay extra in order to participate in the raffle. The entire cost of the evening is donated, so any money we receive goes to help the organization, i.e. it goes to tsedoko. Can I simply tell them they can use their ma’aser money because everything they give ends up being used as tsedoko?
While the halachos governing ma’aser kesofim are not discussed in the Gemara, the poskim have derived many of the rules governing which expenses can be deducted from ma’aser money from the rules of what one can do with ma’aser from his crops. One rule of ma’aser by crops is that everyone is entitled to select which Levi will receive his ma’aser. This right is called tova’as hano’o. Therefore, the Taz (Yoreh Deah 249, 1) rules that one may use his ma’aser money to buy an aliyah to the sefer Torah for one of his friends (if that was his intention at the time of the purchase), since he is only deriving tovas hano’o – the gratitude of his friend – from his ma’aser money. His money is a donation to the shul with the donor receiving a minor benefit which doesn’t cost the shul anything. Thus, it would seem that you can rightfully inform the attendees that they can use their ma’aser.
However, one must be careful to use this leniency only as much as it applies. While one may derive tovas hano’o from his ma’aser, he may not derive monetary benefit from his ma’aser. For example, he may not accept money or a present from a Levi in return for giving him his ma’aser. Similarly, one may not derive a monetary benefit from his ma’aser kesofim.
An example of this is your sheilo. People normally eat supper and it costs them money to do so. Therefore, Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote (Iggros Moshe, Choshen Mishpot 2, 58) to rabbeim who wanted to use their ma’aser money to pay for the cost of attending a yeshiva dinner that they may do so. However if, for example, they serve meat at the dinner and the rebbi normally eats meat for supper, then he has to use his own money to pay the amount it would have cost him to eat meat at home. If he normally does not eat meat for supper but cheaper foods, then he has to use his own money to pay for two-thirds of the cost of meat (The amount of two-thirds is based upon the Gemara in Bava Kama 21B that this is the amount one would pay for meat if he otherwise does not eat meat.). The Emess Leya’acov (Yoreh Deah siman 249) writes the identical ruling in the name of Rav Yacov Kaminetsky.
The basic idea is that one can use ma’aser money to pay for the dinner but one must deduct from the cost any savings he had from eating the dinner. The fact that the meal does not cost the institution anything (or if it costs more than a home meal, as was the case by R’ Yacov) is not relevant, because the rule is based on the savings of those who eat. Thus if, for example, the institution charges two hundred dollars to attend the dinner and it costs twenty dollars for a person’s normal supper, he can count one hundred eighty dollars as ma’aser.
Your second issue concerns the door prizes. Here again the attendee is receiving something which has monetary value and therefore, it depends on what you give and the individual who receives it.
A similar sheilo occurs often in a different situation. Sometimes poor talmedai chachomim write seforim and in order to receive money in an honorable manner they sell their seforim, earning a profit which helps sustain them. It is a big mitzvah to buy their seforim, since the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch write that the best way to give tsedoko to a poor person is in a manner which avoids embarrassment. The poor person who sells seforim is essentially receiving money in a manner which avoids embarrassment. Furthermore, it is a bigger mitzvah to support a poor person who is also a talmid chacham.
The relevant question that is discussed by poskim is what is the halacha if the one who purchases the sefer has no use for the sefer and the only reason he buys it is to support the talmid chacham. This issue was addressed by Rav Chaim Kanievsky (Derech Emunah 7, 5 s.v. ve’echod). He leans to permitting writing off the entire amount from one’s ma’aser, since the purchaser in this case is not defraying any cost. It is reliably written (Orchos Rabbeinu vol. 1, tsedoko 33-page 303) that this was also the opinion of the Chazon Ish. This is similar to one who buys a ticket to the dinner but derives no benefit from the dinner.
Therefore, if the prize is something from which the attendee will derive benefit, he will have use his own money to pay for the value of the present. If, however, he will not derive any benefit from the present and he wouldn’t pay anything for it, it is similar to the sefer that is purchased from the poor talmid chacham.
Your question about raffles will be discussed next week, Be’ezras Hashem.