Building Bridges: How to Navigate International Clients in American Waters

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

“Globalization has changed us into a company that searches the world, not just to sell or to source, but to find intellectual capital – the world’s best talents and greatest ideas.” Jack Welch, former chairman of General Electric

For many decades – since before the founding of the modern State of Israel – Israel-based non-profits have attempted to secure voluntary giving from Jews living in every corner of the free world, but especially in the United States. A host of other Jewish-focused non-profits in other countries have appealed to Americans and the global Jewish community for support. While Americans are noted as one of the most charitable people, we know that active fundraising efforts take place in virtually every country in the Western world.

Some organizations have experienced success while others have not secured the responses that they had envisioned. Generally, philanthropies rise and fall on the success of their ability to provide superb services for a worthy cause as well as with the networks they create and their ability to effectively communicate their role and impact on the people and communities they serve. Non-U.S. based charities have and will continue to succeed in their U.S.-based activities because of their ability to connect to donors on a meaningful level…but what lessons should be shared to make their outreach even more successful?

The Jewish community has had a globalized mentality since the fall of the Second Temple. The Diaspora created an attitude that international borders are, in some instances, only geographic and symbolic divides. The connectivity among Jewish communities in every community and on every continent is a major reason that donations to Israeli and other foreign based Jewish organizations continue to flourish.

Building support in the American Jewish community for a “foreign” charity does not happen overnight. Often months and years of careful strategic planning, crafting a clearly understandable vision, all combined with concerted efforts to meet people and become known and loved, are all required for success… customary ingredients for every successful non-profit today. But we all too frequently encounter impatient charities in which leadership, often with little or no experience working in the American Jewish community, expecting quick and often unrealistic results. Therefore, how do international and overseas charities establish themselves and connect with new U.S. donors? What should expectations be? What are the first steps?

We, at EHL Consulting, have worked with dozens of overseas-based projects (in Israel, Central and South America, and Eastern Europe), and have helped initiate and propel their efforts and establish their “American Friends” organizations, so we now offer a few tangible pieces of advice that we have culled from years of hands-on experiences:

  • Have realistic expectations about success and be prepared to make an investment in creating a U.S. infrastructure that will take several years to see a “return on investment.

Establishing a network of supporters requires patience, and most of all diligence. Success will not come with one phone call or meeting. It takes consistent messaging and an ability to translate the expectations of the agency to U.S. donors, most of whom are sophisticated and knowledgeable but in ways different from the ways that non-U.S. NGO’s operate.

  • Building your organization’s presence and capability to gain access to the hearts and wallets of major donors and setting up an “American Friends” organization are two VERY different things. The former must be in place before the latter is even considered. Too often we see overseas organizations rushing to create the Friends associations without the critical organizational mass to justify them. The 501c3 is only an instrument (you can use PEF, a Federation, or other available community resources to handle early gifts). Without true leadership and capability the “American Friends” is meaningless.
  • Once you get to the step of creating the local Friends organization, make sure that you grasp every step of the process, from setting up an American bank account, to securing 501c3 status with the IRS and appropriate state authorities, to working through language barriers, and to filing all necessary reports with all government agencies.

Navigating the complex and ever changing IRS system can be daunting, even for an experienced and sophisticated nonprofit CEO. Incorrect filing and inadequate legal advice can extend and even derail the best plans. Foreign nonprofits must make the investment and hire experts in dealing with the government agencies and various state regulations. The process of organization building and raising money for overseas organizations is changing; thus foreign nonprofits need to engage experienced professionals from the beginning.

  • Use technology and more real-time communication to enable potential donors to receive hands-on information about the non-domestic agency. Consider live-streaming meetings, thereby bringing the organization right in to the homes and offices of potential leaders and donors. Frequent emails and other types of personalized communication are critical.
  • Bring the principals (CEO’s, key professionals and Board members) regularly to the U.S. to meet with prospective leaders and donors. The age-old caveat that people give to people is still the most important element of the fundraising relationship, particularly with overseas organizations. While the vision, case, materials and the use of technology are all critical it is the direct connection and the ability to fully understand the impact that will be the final determinant for the lead or major donor.

Philanthropy to worthy overseas causes is not a new concept. The last twenty years have shown that globalization has dramatically altered the landscape of the world, including the philanthropic community. Leaders and supporters of NGO’s worldwide must understand and grasp the opportunities and use the available tools to achieve success.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are regular contributors to EHL Consulting is a proud member of the Giving Institute and an underwriter of Giving USA. The institute is a leader in tracking data and following trends in the non-profit sector. EHL Consulting works with dozens of non-profits across the globe on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.