An Israeli Friends Organization: A Best Kept Secret

A great deal has been written about “American Friends” organizations and the role they play with Israeli non-profits. Historically they have been both a blessing and a curse for the local Israeli organization. At the same time that they have provided financial support by raising needed funds there have also been many examples of tensions and issues between the Israeli board and the “American Friends” due to cultural differences.

One of the best kept secrets and least utilized instruments to strengthen the social sanction of a non-profit organization in Israel and its financial sustainability is the “Israeli Friends” (or “yeddim” in Hebrew.) Over the last few years as the voluntary sector in Israel has grown both in the number of non-profits and in the expanded function of many agencies. There has been a slow but steady rise in the evolution of “Friends” organizations. In general, these are people who are empowered to support the work of the voluntary organizations. In many cases the members have a personal connection to the services provided. For example, a spouse whose partner is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease may decide to join the Israeli friends to volunteer time or to contribute financial support.

A person who joins a “Friends” organization is not only motivated by the purpose of the organization but also benefits from the social aspect of the groups activity. The members enjoy each other’s company and sharing in the experience of supporting the activities of the organizations. Meetings can be conducted in an informal setting and can take place around a “pot luck” dinner where everyone prepares one dish to be served.

The social aspect of the meetings supports the commitment to be involved and motivates people to work more intensively on behalf of the organization. As the group meets over time and plans its activities it strengthens the social bonds among the group’s members. This in turn stimulates those who are active to want to spend more time with each other.

The agenda of the meetings and activities are generated by discussions with the group’s members, staff members and, in some cases, relevant members of the board of directors. It is not uncommon for the chair of the “Friends” group to be a member of the board of directors of the organization or to be a past officer of the board. Often the connection between the “Friends” and the board can prevent a division in understanding the organization’s needs.

The activities that are appropriate for a “Friends” group include those that increase the organization’s visibility in the community, increase the understanding of the agency’s activities, and its contributions to the community. Of course not least of all is increasing the financial contributions to the agency and strengthening the financial sustainability. This means identify ways of reaching out and securing financial contributions that provide new and additional income.

There are a variety of programs, events and activities that simultaneously increase the financial base of the organization and strengthen the “Friends” group. It is possible to do this when the group successful implements a program and has a strong sense of satisfaction from the results as well as the way the people worked together. The stronger the sense of camaraderie among the members the more they will be willing to work together and to do for the organization.

Examples of activities Israeli “Friends” groups can be involved in include:

  • Opening doors to meet with influential people who can assist the agency.
  • Planning and conducting a major annual event to raise funds and friends for the non-profit.
  • Planning and implementing a series of small events that will appeal to a specific group. This might include a variety of fundraising activities – bicycle ride, a virtual dinner, an annual fundraising campaign, a birthday campaign where friends contribute to the organization in the honoree’s name, and other similar events.
  • Making contacts to form partnerships with both public sector offices and private business.

This is by no means and exhaustive list and I am sure that many volunteers and professionals can work together to think of other appropriate roles for a “Friends” group.

Generally speaking the group does not become involved in the governance of the agency or in making decisions that have an impact on the daily functioning of the board of directors or the staff. Of course there are instances when the “Friends” group discusses issues that have implications for the either policies or the practices of the organization. At this point a staff member or a volunteer leader that is a member of the “Friends” and the board will take to the board to be discussed. Although members of the group do not have formal responsibilities for governance they can have an influence on decision-making through their involvement in the organization.

It behooves executive directors, board members, and those responsible for financial resource development to consider forming a “Friends” group where one does not exist. If a group does exist it is essential to think about how the group can strategically be used to further the organization. It can be very productive for an organization to develop an internal strength like a “Friends” group instead of always looking outward for the donor who is going to provide a single gift to provide the support the agency is seeking. When these groups are facilitated and nurtured correctly they can have a lasting impact on the financial status and security of non-profit organizations.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.