There is a double-edged sword to continually looking for outside support for Israeli organizations.
By Stephen G. Donshik
In an article in The Jerusalem Post of September 9, 2014 – “Israeli Nonprofits Look to US Counterparts for Funding” – Niv Elis discuss how Israeli organizations are seeking funding in the United States by creating American-based nonprofits that raise money and then transfer the funds to their Israeli counterparts. He extensively quotes Tidhar Ofek, a board member of American Support for Israel (ASI). According to its website ASI is
the first organization that enables Americans to donate online, tax-deductibly, to any nonprofit organization in Israel. We do this in partnership with IsraelGives.org: When you make a donation through these websites, the funds are transferred to American Support for Israel, which issues you a fully tax-deductible receipt. We then transfer your donated funds to the organization of your choice in Israel (in accordance with IRS regulations), and update you about the impact of your donation. Every month, we are helping thousands of donors to support Israel, and have provided since 2009 millions of dollars to over 250 different nonprofit organizations.
Praising the work of ASI, Elis’s article points Israeli nonprofits in the direction of strengthening their financial resources by focusing their efforts outside of Israel. In so do, it continues to hinder Israeli nonprofits’ boards of directors from assuming responsibility for the financial sustainability of their organizations within the context of Israeli society.
There is a double-edged sword to continually looking for outside support for Israeli organizations. For decades the boards of Israeli nonprofit organizations have conceived of their role in a very limited fashion. They have not understood that the board’s role is be accountable for the functioning of the agencies and be directly involved in fundraising on an ongoing basis. Those of us involved in nonprofits in Israel have heard board members’ constant refrain: “I volunteer my time to go to meetings, but I do not have to provide financial support or participate in the efforts to raise funds for the organization.”
Unfortunately this misunderstanding is often reinforced by the directors of nonprofits and by their staff and consultants brought on to raise the funds – often on their own without encouraging board members to participate in these efforts. In response, there has been a growing movement in the Israeli nonprofit sector to introduce new concepts of board responsibility, accountability, and the role that board members should be playing in the financial resource development of organizations in the third sector.
A number of programs have been designed to educate board members and provide them with the skills needed to take more responsibility for the finances of voluntary organizations. The Elka Division of JDC Israel both educates board members about how to fulfill their roles and provides training for the professional staff of nonprofits in how to work with boards. Matan, Effective Community Investment in Israel, has been assisting nonprofits in strengthening their leadership and raising funds locally.
Sheatufim, the Israel Center for Civil Society, founded by both Israeli philanthropists and international Jewish organizations, has as its mission to empower, support, and unite Israel’s nonprofit organizations, philanthropists, and citizen action groups for the betterment of Israeli society. These groups are just a few of the many working to encourage the growth and maturity of Israel’s philanthropic community and its nonprofit organizations.
By heralding ASI and its focus on resources outside of Israel, Elis is doing a great disservice – both raising the expectations of struggling Israeli nonprofits and misdirecting their energies. He portrays the path to the “Goldena Medina” as an easy way for struggling nonprofits to acquire needed funds, rather than making the difficult effort of involving their volunteer and professional leadership in strengthening their organizations. This continues to perpetuate a myth that Israel cannot support its own voluntary organizations. It also discourages Israeli philanthropists from contributing on levels equal to their counterparts in other Jewish communities around the world.
Elis focuses on Israeli nonprofits that have set up “American Friends of…” organizations to, in his words “help tap into the vast pool of contributions.” I would posit that this is often more of a nightmare than a dream, and I encourage organizations that are contemplating this route to look at my posting on eJewish Philanthropy, “American Friends: Whose Friends Are They?” Often Israeli nonprofits establish “friends’organization” without proper planning or appropriate leadership. After the organization is established it often develops priorities of its own and is sometimes it begins to move in directions that are not consistent with the Israeli nonprofit’s mission. It is a mistake to consider these groups as an easy way to secure needed funds.
In the more than 30 years that I have been involved in Israel’s voluntary sector, I have seen great strides in its leaders becoming more sophisticated and deepening their understanding that there is more to sitting on a voluntary board of directors than having their names on the letterhead. I urge more organizations to seek the assistance of the programs mentioned here rather than searching for gold in the streets overseas.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.