Firing the American Friends: Can This Really Be Done?

I have written about the relationship between Israel non-profit organizations and groups that support their efforts by raising funds in the United States (and other countries). It is well known that these groups are referred to as “American Friends” and they are registered non-profits in the countries in which they are formed. Generally, those people involved are either former or present donors; have a personal relationship with present leadership; and/or identify with the purposes of the overseas non-profit.

Coincidentally, several people have spoken with me recently about a particular challenge they have faced in dealing with the American Friends group. Differences of opinions, a multiplicity of perspectives, and challenging discussions about the organization’s priorities are not uncommon among the overseas boards and the American Friends groups. However, there are times when conflicts arise that seem insurmountable and can threaten the very nature of the partnership between the two groups of people who share a commitment to meeting the needs of the clients and members that are served by the overseas organization.

In addition, there are also instances when the volunteers in the American Friends become overwhelmed by issues in their personal lives and are unable to maintain an active involvement in the organization. When overseas organizations are dependent on the funds raised by the volunteers and staff of the American office this decrease in active involvement can cause a serious problem for continuity in the provision of services. Committed leaders who have a strong identification with either the client population or the delivery of much needed services are reluctant to abdicate their positions although their active participation may have been on the wane.

Whether due to disagreements in the organization or due to a change in the personal situation of the volunteer leader when these things happen they can cause a disruption in the function of the American Friends and the overseas non-profit.

A number of questions are raised concerning how the overseas organization should and can respond when the American Friends are no longer working effectively and efficiently. It may mean that there will be a slow down in the expansion of support for the services provided overseas. At the same time when there is a serious decrease in the funds transferred to the agency it can cause a crisis in the way the overseas organization functions. The worse scenario is having to cutback on the provision of services and this can happen with a slow down in the transfer of needed funds.

Even when there are strong and close relationships developed between the overseas organization’s local board of directors and the American Friend’s board and volunteer leadership the slowdown in activity can cause a great deal of tension. When the amount of funding has dropped by 60% – 80% because of a change in the function of the American Friends it can give rise not only to disappointment but also to anger on the part of those people who are involved on a daily basis with the functioning of the overseas organization. A sense of “true partnership” on either side will be eroded and there will be a lack of trust and understanding between the two groups.

It is not uncommon for the overseas leadership to begin discussing breaking away from the American Friends group or even worse, “firing the present chairperson or president. This gives rise to a series of questions:

  1. Is the American Friends group a branch of the overseas organization or is it a completely independent organization?
  2. Who does the president of the Americans Friends work for? Does the person report only to the board of the American Friends or does she report to both the overseas leadership and the local board?
  3. If there is a break between the American Friends and the overseas organization who controls the organizations assets at the American Friends?
  4. In terms of the future, what are the options for both the American Friends and the local overseas organizations?
  5. Is it possible to avoid crisis situations like the one described here?

American Friends organizations are independent non-profit organizations that are established for their own purposes. In most cases the organization are identified and committed to one overseas organization or to supporting a specific cause overseas. The overseas organization is rarely mentioned formally and the legal papers that are filed general speak more about responding to the needs of the citizens in the foreign country and less about the specifics of the organization overseas. The American organization is receiving a “license” to collect tax deductible funds and to be accountable for how the organization allocates the funds overseas. The bottom line is that the American organization can allocate the funds they have collected to any overseas organization that fits its criteria for receiving and disbursing funds for social and educational programs.

The president of the American organization is appointed or elected by the American board members and the overseas leadership does not have the right to “fire” the president of the American group even it is not functioning well. The American organization is responsible for its assets and it can decide to cease funding the overseas organization and to fund another organization providing services as long as they are consistent with the purpose upon which the American Friends was founded. Of course, it is better to avoid these kinds of crisis situations than for both organizations to find themselves with few or no alternatives. However, when the groups find themselves in a difficult situation the most important thing is to continue talking and try to find a way for both organizations to fulfill their purposes and achieve their goals.

The best way to prevent these crisis situations is to maintain a true sense of partnership between the American Friends and the overseas organization. In addition to each group having their own board there should be one or more shared committees that are responsible for coordinating efforts in areas of resource development and provision of services. There needs to be shared-decision making in relation to some policies and practices and to have an ongoing planning committee that is exploring future needs and services as well as discussing the present situation.

At the core of the success of the coordination of the two groups is the close working relationship between the directors and presidents or chairs of both organizations. The closer they work together and share their ideas, thinking and commitments the greater the potential for success and for the avoidance of crisis situations that do not serve the interest of either organization. Thus, if a personal situation prevents the American Friends from fulfilling their responsibilities and the two groups have worked closely together then they will be able to develop a shared approach for dealing with the situation in partnership and not in conflict.

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.