Elite Philanthropy in Israel

by Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill

What motivates big-time philanthropists to give? That’s the question that college presidents, museum and orchestra CEOs, as well as foundation and civic leaders all want to answer.

Hillel Schmid and Avishag Rudich-Cohn, faculty at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, take up this question in the Israeli context in the latest issue of Society. Their findings are occasion for reflection about what kinds of civil societies encourage many of their wealthy to join the ranks of elite philanthropists.

As Schmid and Rudich-Cohn note, Israeli philanthropists are much like philanthropists elsewhere: Schmid and Rudich-Cohn observe, for example, the adoption of a “businesslike, task-oriented” philanthropy not only by new philanthropists whose made money in high-tech ventures but by long-time philanthropists from old money. This is just the same metrics- and results-driven philanthropy we see here in the United States.

However, Schmid and Rudich-Cohn wonder about whether there’s a distinctive character to elite Israeli philanthropy. To that end, they interviewed seventy-nine elite Israeli philanthropists to inquire about their motivations and philanthropic interests. They conclude that “Israel philanthropy is still struggling to establish a distinct identity” but they do discern the beginnings of a distinctive, elite Israeli philanthropy.

This distinctive elite Israeli philanthropy does not seem particularly religious. When Schmid and Rudich-Cohn asked the philanthropists to rank thirteen motives for philanthropy, the statement that “Charity and deeds of loving-kindness are equal to the observance all the commandments in the Torah” ranked near the bottom of the list. So the Jewish obligation of tzedakah or charity – which applies to all Jewish people, not just the wealthy – seems comparatively unimportant in motivating most elite philanthropists. Schmid and Rudich-Cohn do note, however, that “the religious philanthropists showed a greater tendency to contribute more than those who were not religious.”

Nor, however, is elite Israeli philanthropy shaped by peer pressures, at least to judge from the reports of the philanthropists themselves: Schmid and Rudich-Cohn found that philanthropists ranked the statements “participation in fundraising events is part of my social standing” and “when you move in certain social circles, you feel you have to contribute” as least applicable to their motives for philanthropy.

Schmid and Rudich-Cohn find instead that the philanthropists were most motivated by a sense of personal responsibility for their community. They conclude:

elite philanthropy is predominately motivated by a commitment to building and strengthening society… Elite philanthropists in Israel also view themselves as playing an important role in the national effort to create a new society. Toward that end, they contribute substantial sums of money, which distinguish them from other philanthropists.

Indeed, the philanthropists in Schmid and Rudich-Cohn’s sample give seven percent of their income – a greater fraction of their income than most wealthy Americans give – to shore up the foundations of the Israeli state and to play a role in shaping Israeli civil society.

Philanthropy is part of civil society, and each society will have a distinctive character to its philanthropic elite. It’s instructive to contrast the willingness of wealthy Israelis to become elite philanthropists with the reluctance of new millionaires and billionaires in countries like China. Of course, Israel is a new country and China is a very old country, but both are undergoing significant transformations. One might think that the newly wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs might take on the role elite philanthropists. However, few wealthy Chinese do so, as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet found when they visited China to promote their “Giving Pledge.” It seems that those societies that value the individual – those founded in the Western tradition – are also those where wealthy individuals are most willing to contribute to transforming their society for the better.

Copyright © 2012 DonorsTrust, Inc; reprinted with permission.