After the JFN Annual Conference: One Israeli Reflection

[A further article in a series aimed at guiding Israeli nonprofits towards successful resource development]

by Natan Golan

On my way out of the grand ballroom of the Tel Aviv Hilton on the final afternoon of the Jewish Funders Network International Conference last week, I noticed a bin with an attached note “recycle your conference name tag”, which is very new-age, very responsible and certainly thought-provoking. On my long journey home to the northern Galilee, I had time to reflect on yet another Jewish conference I had just attended. Was this conference just “more of the same” or was there some added value here that may light up a path for the future?

The annual JFN conference was, in my own view, very important and successful – if only because it was held in Israel and that there were ample opportunities for global Jewish donors and foundations to learn first-hand about many programs and initiatives in Israel on the organized day-trip and site visits, that were a core component of the program. It was also a statement and a tribute, during challenging economic times, to the fact that global philanthropic contribution to the Israeli non-profit sector has doubled over the past two decades. By holding their conference in Israel, JFN demonstrated global Jewish leadership and played an important role in supporting this encouraging trend.

I pondered on all those who came from afar to sit and discuss how best to give away their philanthropic dollars, pounds and Euros to Jewish and Israel causes. They came from far away as Australia to be part of a vibrant collective of seasoned Jewish funders. There’s no doubt that just by bringing them all together here in Israel and engaging this diverse group, is no small achievement for the ever-evolving JFN. The plenary and break-out sessions were well planned and the networking and/or “schmoozing” in the corridors – an essential component of these get-togethers – all ran smoothly.

What worked for me less at this conference was the ever-growing focus, and at times fixation, on the business/corporate-style management of philanthropy and, in particular, the demands on recipient non-profit organizations to adjust to them. For many years I have been at the forefront of the movement to help Israeli nonprofits to increase their professionalism, transparency and accountability. We just need to ensure that we are not overdoing it.

In one session I attended, a well-respected Israeli colleague of mine stood up and almost pleaded with the panel members that by choice, we are all involved together through “Tzedakah”. He went on to say that in the Israeli non-profit sector there are thousands of truly amazing individuals – professionals and volunteers – working tirelessly for their causes and communities on a shoe- string budget and that with the added weight of having to learn and implement high-brow business/corporate practices as a pre-requisite for an allocation, they were, simply put, disillusioned and collapsing under the pressure. It’s important also to note that there are existing rigorous checks and balances imposed on Israeli non-profit organizations by the regulator (“Rasham Ha’amutot” – the Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations).

I looked over at some of the veteran professionals and donors I know who seemed occasionally lost in those sessions consumed by “fiscal platforms” and “regenerated growth” as if these were the only ways in which charitable giving would succeed. There needs to be more proportion on this contentious issue and even more synthesis between the old school and new school approaches to philanthropy, without alienating either the younger or older generations working together in this field. In our age-old Jewish tradition it is written that you should give your charity “…to anything that resonates with your heart.” Not your (mathematical-logical) mind – but your (emotive and feeling) heart.

This Jewish reference to an anatomical reflex in charitable giving is not by chance. It is a clear beacon for how we need to engage in the holy work of charity. In my view, a balanced format of practices needs to be in place to ensure that one’s charitable giving is both accountable and compassionate.

A final thought and, I admit to not being objective on this point: Israel is not only Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Over 90% of conferences held in Israel take place in these two locations. It’s disproportionate and, at times, it’s unreasonable. JFN would have sent a glorious message to the Government of Israel, the business sector, opinion makers and the general public by holding their conference away from Tel Aviv. The southern capital city of Beer Sheva would have been my first choice (there’s a great hotel there too!). Besides the mammoth message that would have resonated globally from such a decision, it would also have served to demonstrate the JFN membership commitment to and solidarity with all Israeli citizens living in the turbulent south. So how about next year?

Natan Golan is a Senior Partner at Golan & Kaye – Leading Philanthropy in Israel and founder of The Israel Academy of Philanthropy (TM).