Adapting to Change in Israel’s Philanthropic Arena

[This post is part of a series from the Ruderman Family Foundation designed to introduce you to the evolving world of Israeli philanthropy.]

by Yael Shalgi

Yad Hanadiv (the Rothschild Foundation) is a private foundation dedicated to creating resources for advancing Israel as a healthy, vibrant, democratic society, committed to Jewish values and equal opportunity for the benefit of all its inhabitants. The Foundation acts in Israel on behalf of Rothschild family trusts that carry forward a 130-year tradition of philanthropy in Israel.

Our Trustees frequently ask two fundamental questions: Is the Foundation suited to undertake a particular initiative? And what unique added value do we bring to the table? These questions are clearly relevant to philanthropy in general, as it is called upon to apply limited funds to catalyze, generate and ensure the sustainability of social change.

Over the past century, Yad Hanadiv has adapted its philanthropy to changing needs. Edmond de Rothschild, the ‘known benefactor’ and founder of Rothschild philanthropy in what was then Palestine, dealt with basic infrastructure requirements of Jews who had come to build a new life. The long-term sustainability of investments was a major concern guiding his philanthropy. With the establishment of the State, Edmond’s successors – his son James and later his daughter-in-law Dorothy – responded to a new set of needs. It was their inspiration to provide worthy homes for the Knesset and the Supreme Court. They established innovative institutions such as Educational Television, the Open University and the Centre for Educational Technology – designed to serve the rapidly growing, heterogeneous population and afford opportunity, with special attention to the periphery. They nurtured academic excellence as critical to the long-term success of the State.

Israel is no longer a developing nation, but rather an established, economically impressive and complex state. We continue to ask ourselves in these circumstances: Where is our added value? What does it take to create impact?

Our response has been to focus on knotty challenges that require persistent, stable and systematic attention, challenges others have difficulty tackling on their own. Examples are: promoting pedagogic improvement within schools by methodically addressing school leadership; addressing the dangers of environmental pollution to human health and well-being in Israel through improved scientific understanding and expertise, cooperation among diverse stakeholders, and better policies and preventive efforts; and cooperating with the National Library of Israel in its renewal as a state-of-the-art 21st century library.

Inequality of opportunity and expanding segments of the population that are not part of the fabric of society must be of concern to anyone interested in Israel’s future. This was the catalyst for the creation several years ago of a new programme area at Yad Hanadiv known as ‘Arab Community’. (It was added to the Academic Excellence, Education and Environment Programmes.) The Arab Community Programme marked a shift from focus on a field to attention to a segment of the population. The move has, in this area, spawned both a different perspective and a new set of collaborations.

We do our best to bring value through tools which are part of the culture of our work, and which have served us well: consultation with diverse sectors of Israeli society, seeking out differing viewpoints, exploring past efforts and approaches and the lessons they offer; careful attention to research and the best expertise in the world; taking the time to ensure shared understandings and alignment with stakeholders and partners; and a strong commitment to creating and sharing knowledge.

Our interest in complex issues for which there are no quick and easy ‘fixes’, requires a great deal of trial, error and learning. The following are among the lessons we can share:

  • Making significant change requires cooperation and collaboration with the major stakeholders; creating shining examples or small-scale pilots can be an important first stage, but systemic change requires an additional layer of thinking and planning from the very start. In Israel, in most cases, this entails a tricky partnership with Government.
  • Funders can play a major role by insisting on careful research, learning and planning and as drivers of rigorous (and sensible) monitoring and measurement.
  • Philanthropy is justifiably thought of as bringing the benefits of ‘nimbleness’. It is equally true, however, that its advantage often lies in its ability to move methodically, without the political pressures of short-term attention to doing, rather than to results.
  • There is great value in learning from experience abroad, even as Israeli realities – cultural differences, organisational and management capacity, how public institutions operate and the particular set of challenges facing this small country – must always be taken into consideration.

From the very beginning, Rothschild family philanthropy in Palestine was animated by a vision of the society to be built. As captured in Baron Edmond’s 1925 speech at the Tel Aviv Great Synagogue, it encompassed an ‘Israel [that] could demonstrate to the world its moral and intellectual strength and its capacity for work …’ No less today is Yad Hanadiv philanthropy inspired by a vision of the society we would wish to promote – a healthy, vibrant, democratic society, committed to Jewish values and equal opportunity for the benefit of all its inhabitants. The context in which we work has and will change. The vision remains constant – as does the need for partnerships and relentless learning if we are to contribute to significant change.

Yael Shalgi is the Chief Operating Officer at Yad Hanadiv.