Beyond Right or Wrong: 3 Lessons from Magen David Adom
by Shuey Fogel
Once again, the Israeli nonprofit organization Magan David Adom (MDA) and it’s American supporting charity, American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA), are in the news after all five members of AFMDA’s executive board resigned, stating that they “refuse to abdicate or compromise in any way our fiduciary duty to AFMDA and its donors.”
First, allow me to say that writing this piece is painful; it is disturbing (to put it mildly) that an organization that has such a positive impact on Israel’s daily life is getting such negative press.
Two, which side is right or wrong is of secondary importance. Regardless how the situation plays out in the near or distant future, organizations can learn RIGHT NOW from the very public debates raging between the American and Israeli arms.
Specifically, the core issues – defining roles, trust, and independence – are the same faced by all international organizations, and, as such, can provide a constructive case-study for nonprofits, their board members, and their donors.
(While I generally refrain from talking about specific groups so as to avoid accidentally tarnishing an organization’s reputation, in this case, after articles in the Forward, The Jewish Week and eJewish Philanthropy, I think it’s safe to say that the cat is out of the bag.)
1. Defining Roles
The resigning board members argue that Israel’s MDA views AFMDA as purely a fundraising arm. – Forward
Let’s be very clear: establishing a “Friends of” Charity is not just about creating a PO Box in the United States. Rather, a “Friends of” Organization is about finding like-minded individuals that share a similar passion for a charity’s mission and believe that Charity X is the best way to address this particular issue.
Said somewhat differently, creating a supporting charity abroad is about empowering individuals outside of the organizational framework and arming them with the appropriate tools so they can promote your cause; hopefully, raising a heck-of-a-lot of money in the process.
The relationship a foreign charity has with its American Friends is similar to the relationship any nonprofit has with its Board Members. This point is addressed most excellently in an article by Hildy Gottlieb. The following short excerpt doesn’t do it justice:
Board Members and FriendRaising:
The point of engaging the community (which is really what FriendRaising is all about) is an engaged community … Friends will not let anything bad happen to your work. They will help in ways you never dreamed possible. They will want to see good things happen, and will work like the devil to be sure nothing bad happens.
Friends share all their gifts with the organization, and are thrilled that the organization sees value in those gifts! They give what they have, whatever that is – and yes, quite often, it is even money. But it is not only money. It is usually far more.
The only road to sustainability is to engage the community in your work, to turn that community into an army of friends achieving something amazing together, spreading the roots of ownership of your mission and vision throughout the community, so the community would not dream of letting that mission die.
When two sides do not agree on their particular roles there will undoubtedly be tension. It is best to address these issues early on so as to avoid them becoming a much larger issue in the future.
The Israeli group has argued that AFMDA is holding a huge cache of money that donors believe is going directly and immediately to Israel, while in actuality is it waiting – at times, for years – for approval by the American body … Another factor contributing to the mistrust that some AFMDA officials harbored toward their Israeli counterparts is an ongoing criminal investigation in Israel against the CEO of MDA. – Forward
And, of course, a cornerstone for a good friendship is trust. And the trust should flow in two directions:
- The American Friends should trust that the beneficiary (a.k.a. the foreign charity) is using the money wisely and responsibly to forward the common mission in the best way possible.
- The Foreign Charity should trust that its American Friends are supporting it – especially monetarily – in the best way possible. This means that the foreign nonprofit trusts the methods used by the American charity to fundraise, hire staff, and publicize/market the organization etc.
If either of these trusts breakdown, a situation like what MDA is experiencing now is the inevitable result.
3. Independence (and Compliance)
But on January 19, all five members of AFMDA’s executive committee resigned, warning that the renewed partnership could come at the heavy price of lost independence and possible abdication of the American group’s legal responsibilities as a charity certified in the United States. – Forward
… The leadership of Magen David Adom (MDA), and some of the members of AFMDA’s Board of Directors, do not appear to share our commitment to our roles as responsible and independent fiduciaries, exercising sound judgment in full compliance with the letter and spirit of American laws and donor expectations. – eJewishPhilanthropy
An American nonprofit’s need to be independent stems primarily from the I.R.S..
As such, foreign organizations looking to establish an American Friends of Organization in the States need to understand that the American charity must demonstrate control and financial accountability. If the U.S. nonprofit is thought to be a simple puppet of the foreign organization, the I.R.S. can remove tax-exempt status and/or levy fines.
Two key points from a previous post exemplify the level of control the U.S. Government is expecting:
- Grants should be reduced to a written agreement signed by both the charity and the grantee. In addition to requiring periodic reports, charities should perform routine, on-site audits of grantees.
- The I.R.S. insists that charities must demonstrate that it exercised an independent decision about the use of its donations and that the funds sent abroad further the charities’ own purposes.
It is important to note that the due diligence done by a “Friends Of” is not a reflection of distrust as mentioned above, rather its inherent responsibility to the government scrutinizing the charity and to its donors.
A foreign nonprofit looking to establish a “Friends of” charity in America must realize that it is not opening a branch or satellite, rather a separate entity. If the parent organization cannot appreciate this distinction, a “Friends of” Organization might not be the best solution for the charity; there are, after all, other types of entities that can help transfer donations abroad.
Let us not be naive and think that Magen David Adom is the only organization to have problems of control, independence, and fiduciary responsibility. Just the opposite, many international nonprofits have similar issues but will continue to avoid addressing them because they are “fortunate” enough not to be in the limelight. (And this, by the way, is the real danger, though, not the subject of this post.)
As I mentioned above, this piece isn’t about blame or deciding which side is right. As far as I’m concerned, both sides – and especially the charity’s beneficiaries – come out behind.
I heard Martin Brookes, CEO of New Philanthropy Capital in the UK, explain at a recent conference that he can only offer people the lessons he’s learned from the mistakes he has made. It is my sincere hope – and perhaps the only silver lining in this whole mess – that other organizations take note of MDA’s recent struggles and learn from them. (From my mouth to God’s ears.)
Disclaimer: This blog houses my personal opinions and is for informational purposes only – not advice. As charity laws can be quite complex, please refer all questions to qualified and licensed professionals in your own country. Read the full disclaimer.
Shuey Fogel is a nonprofit professional turned banking specialist. He is currently Director of Nonprofit Services for an Israeli bank. Shuey shares relevant conversations, articles, and experiences on his blog, nonprofitbanker.com.