Formal or Informal Friends: What Is Best For Your Organization?

Last week I discussed the role of a “Friends Group” in supporting Israeli non-profit organizations. One of the comments written on the website raised a question about whether a “Friends Group” should be a formal or informal organization. Whether it should be part of the Israeli non-profit or be an independent non-profit providing support for the original Israeli organization that formed the “Friends Group”.

The comment was significant and so I have decided to explore the issue in a separate posting and to identify a number of salient questions that have to be addressed by an organization prior to making a decision on how to proceed with the development of a “Friends Group”. The most important question that has to be answered is what is the purpose of the “Friends Group”? If the primary purpose is to provide support for the Israeli non-profit and the entire focus of its activities is to strengthen the Israeli non-profit then there does not seem to be a reason to establish an additional formal organization that is legally recognized as a non-profit by the State of Israel. A decision by the board of directors of the original organization to form a committee or group that will focus on raising friends and funds for the organization is sufficient.

The new group is empowered by the board decision to conduct its activities on behalf of the Israeli non-profit and to focus on strengthening the financial sustainability and the circle of influential volunteer leaders who work on behalf of the organization. The group’s mandate is not based on an independent decision by people who want to support the organization and thus it is part of the original non-profit.

The basis of the group’s existence and the focus of its activities are to be supportive of the existing organization. They are charged with the task using their knowledge, skills, abilities, and connections to enhance the non-profit. Together with the staff and volunteer leaders of the non-profit they can plan and implement activities that increase the income of the organization and the available funds to enable the agency to provide its services to the community.

These activities may focus on fundraising through parlor meetings, community campaigns, special activities (raffles, sales, “rides and walks”, etc.) or on developing connections with local and national personalities in the public, private and voluntary sectors. Through the friend-raising and fundraising activities the organizations influence is spread and its ability to play a role in advocacy as well as provisions of services is broadened by way of its expanded relationships.

The nature of these involvements on behalf of the Israeli non-profit does not require a separate organization that is a recognized legal entity. In fact, the establishment of an independent “Friends Group” has the potential to create unanticipated challenges and problems for the staff and the board of directors of the existing organization. It is this caution that must be taken seriously prior to making a decision to empower the “Friends Group” as a formal organization.

Once a new entity is formed and it has its own board of directors it can make decisions independent of the non-profit that it has been established to support. The “Friends” can then make decisions that may be in it its own best interest and not in the best interest of the original Israeli non-profit. There is nothing illegal or wrong about this happening, however, it may not work to strengthen and provide the needed support that led to its formation.

When there is discord between the two organizations it weakens the efforts to provide support for the Israeli non-profit that gave birth to the “Friends organization”. The tensions may lead to divisiveness and can ultimately result in a total separation of the two organizations from each other. Thus, the desire to establish an instrument to further support the Israeli organization is defeated by competing interests between two independent non-profits.

When the Israeli “Friends group” is a committee or informal group established by people who want to support the non-profit then the structure reinforces the rationale for the formation of the group. When members are approached and recruited they are told it is a committee of the board of directors to strengthen the organization. The people who agree to join the group are clear about the group’s purpose and their role in being an active participant in the group’s activities.

Of course there may be differences of opinion and a desire to introduce new ideas. This can be accomplished in the context of the “Friends group” being an integral part of the Israel non-profit and not a separate organization. It is always best if one or more members of the board are active in the “Friends group”. This provides the opportunity for open communication among the volunteer leaders who are members of the board and those who are members of the “Friends group.”

I have focused on the Israeli non-profit in the context of Israeli society. Although the dynamics would be the same in other countries there may be different implications due to the culture context. It is even more complicated when discussing Israeli non-profits with groups providing support in foreign countries. In a future column I will deal with these dynamics and issues.

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.