From a Small Candle to Permanent Lighting: The Challenges of Israeli Philanthropy

[This post is part of a series from the Ruderman Family Foundation designed to introduce you to the evolving world of Israeli philanthropy.]

by Atar Razy-Oren

As a child, I very much liked the Jewish story about the simple shoemaker who was repairing shoes by the light of a small candle, during the late hours of the night, before waking up to “Slichot” prayers on Yom Kippur. When the local Rabbi saw him through the window, sitting on his small stool and sewing, he knocked on the door and asked him: “How come you are still sewing shoes when Yom Kippur is about to begin?” And the shoemaker answered him: “As long as the candle is lit, there is still time to repair.” I feel that this story is relevant today and exemplifies the development of Israeli philanthropy.

We understand in Israel that wide, active and responsible philanthropy is crucial for the existence of the State and enables Israel to take a leading position in the development of Jewish peoplehood worldwide. The relative economic prosperity
here, alongside the growing perception of activism among citizens, is enabling this change to happen.

The exact data about the extent of this phenomenon is still limited, but estimations refer to 16 billion shekels ($4.5 billion) from donations invested in Israel in 2011 (see Half of that amount arrived from overseas donors and the other half from local sources; local philanthropy is divided as follows: 4 billion shekels from business corporations, 3 billion from the public and 1 billion shekels from affluent families. If we compare this data with what occurs abroad, it is clear to see that Israel is ranked number one in importing philanthropy as an end destination (Other countries import philanthropy but they export it afterwards to developing countries). It is important to note that personal giving, especially by affluent individuals, is relatively miniscule compared to other countries.

The 2012 public social protests, alongside long term activities by non-governmental organizations such as “Committed to Give”, Sheatufim, JFN ISRAEL, Round-Up, IVN, Matan and more, are changing the local culture and the patterns of giving in Israel.

The reality is actually changing as you read this article. Leading philanthropists who have been active here for generations, are collaborating with professionals, decision makers, media, academics, leading nonprofit organizations and others in order to lead the change in Israeli giving. This “New Philanthropy” is facing a few challenges:

Promoting a variety of causes: The strength and health of the society is based on pluralism, justice and democracy, being translated into policy and governmental legislation. Philanthropy should be the engine of civil society which strengthens that. Moreover, Philanthropy should challenge itself by stepping aside from the comfort zone of investing in soup kitchens and educational programs in schools, and start investing in advocacy, challenging the work of decision makers, strengthening the media to create a more social-justice dialogue and promoting collaborations that could create more impact.

In reality, since the local philanthropic community is in its infancy and not broad enough, it will take some time before a critical number of philanthropies take upon themselves these kinds of responsibilities. Still, the ones that do lead the “New Philanthropy” today, do it with a clear voice, focused efforts and strong collaborations between themselves. One of Israel’s biggest opportunities is still hidden in this kind of innovative and entrepreneurial philanthropy.

Creating a new mixture of givers: Israel, in comparison with other countries, has far more corporate giving than private donations. In addition, the general public gives proportionately more than high net worth individuals. The upcoming years will test whether we can create meaningful change in the sources and patterns of local giving.

Engaging the next generation: While veteran philanthropists think they should donate through big and well-known organizations, the next generation of philanthropists has its own agenda. They see philanthropy as a social investment and part of a social career. They want to be involved “hands on” and in different causes.

Investing in and out of Israel: For decades, Israel has served as the spiritual and cultural center for Jews around the world. Today we should take on the challenge of redesigning the relations between Israelis and Jews abroad. We should ask ourselves the following questions: “What role should both Israelis and Americans and Europeans play in social investing here and there?” and also “What is the role of these strong and solid communities in “supporting Jews at risk or in trouble, in evolving countries and all around the world?”

We are well known for our pioneering capabilities, our hi-tech skills and our innovative culture. Being a “Startup Nation,” we can and we must promote a new kind of philanthropy.

We need to invest in increasing private giving among the affluent, and in endorsing a business culture that is based on shared values among local businesses that choose to donate both money and community service hours. We need to aspire for a model of “Established Philanthropy”: local foundations which are accessible for the public, so that NGOs can apply for multi-year grants, which will allow the civil society to have resources to plan 3-4 years in advance, and to have an ongoing dialogue with the foundations about a collaborative agenda.

Volunteering and “getting involved” are already a part of this country’s DNA. I hope we will be able to emphasize the importance of integrated giving by contributing our time and enhancing our networking connections and skills, alongside donating money. And not only for traditional purposes, but also for various topics that could challenge the existing social economic structure in Israel, to create a more just society for all. I know we have in us the potential as a nation to embrace these changes in the coming years. I hope to see philanthropists from around the world partnering with us to master the challenges I mentioned above.

Because, as long as the candle is still lit, there is still time for some repairing.

Atar Razy-Oren is a Director of Social Investments. She has more than twenty years experience initiating and managing social and philanthropic programs for social change, while engaging and leading partnerships and collaboration to create a broad impact. Atar was previously the director of The Philanthropy Center at Sheatufim.