Fundraising in North America and Israel: Solo or Team Sport?

by Ardie Geldman and Harold Berman

The board members of a certain Israeli educational institution refused their fundraiser’s requests to introduce him to wealthy friends and colleagues, notwithstanding their potential to assist the institution. When asked why, a senior staff member of the institution, himself a native Israeli, sheepishly acknowledged that for the board members to do so would be unseemly.

Why unseemly? Israelis are never too shy to ask a mere acquaintance how much money he or she earns, or how much he or she paid for his apartment or car. Yet, when it comes to fundraising, this boldness quickly shrivels. This is not an isolated anecdote but a story we and many of our colleagues have witnessed repeatedly across small- and medium-size Israeli non-profit organizations. What lies behind this negative view of fundraising?

Over many years private financial support from overseas to aid any number of institutions in Israel was associated with the “rich uncle” method. The procedure for this was simple enough: any anonymous fundraiser traveled abroad in the name of some needy institution (real or otherwise) in Eretz Yisrael where he would solicit wealthy and generous Diaspora Jews and return home with money. This practice traces its roots to the Rabbinic Period when Talmudic academies and institutions for the poor in Eretz Yisrael were sustained primarily by voluntary contributions from Jews abroad.

Due to this legacy, even Israelis who speak no Yiddish will refer to fundraising pejoratively as “schnorring.” Rather than viewing fundraising as a noble pursuit, – tzedaka after all is built into the very moral fabric of Judaism – it is instead associated with the knock at the door by the seemingly ubiquitous agent seeking collecting donations on behalf of one or another Israeli ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, a hapless bridegroom (sometimes the mendicant himself), or a patient in need of an expensive operation abroad. Some of these “fundraisers,” it is known, take home the lion’s share of their collections.

Fundraising has been publicly satirized in Israel at least as far back as the 1960s. Many Israelis still chuckle over the comic portrayal of the unscrupulous Jewish National Fund representative in the classic Israeli film Tzalach Shabbati (1964). This fictional “used car salesman” character has been immortalized in Israeli popular culture for having switched the dedication sign on a recently planted JNF sapling as one visiting wealthy donor couple departs and a second arrives.

Nevertheless, despite these negative associations with its practice, fundraising as a practical necessity cannot be ignored. The founders of any new Israeli non-profit organization, quickly realizing that money is needed to maintain the operation, will sooner rather than later seek out a fundraiser. In many cases, the job is offered on a commission basis, or at a salary below what is reasonable for a skilled and professional staff member.

In short, the fundraiser and the fundraising program are, more often than not, viewed as a obligatory expense rather than an investment. Rare is the nascent Israeli non-profit that seeks first to build its board of directors on the basis of, among other things, the members’ potential to either donate or solicit money from others. Nor does the notion of an overall fundraising strategy for the organization typically play a role. Instead, the average small- to medium Israeli organization, even in 2012, will employ a fundraiser with the expectation the he or she will single-handedly procure the needed funds. Added to this in many cases is the separate but equally time-consuming responsibility for the organization’s public relations.

This picture stands in stark contrast with the North American experience where fundraising over the past half-century has emerged as a profession with a concomitant literature, code of ethics, and university training programs. “Philanthropy in America is a serious business, founded on tradition and professionalism,” says Gidi Grinstein of Israel’s Reut Institute (The Jerusalem Report, July 18, 2011). Especially within the North American Jewish community and particularly through the work of the Jewish Federation system, fundraising theory, processes and techniques have been honed, with little exaggeration, to an almost scientific level. Professional fundraising in North America is not about charity; it is part of a much broader and sophisticated philanthropic system whose ethos is tzedaka, social justice, but whose strategies and techniques are borrowed from the business world.

In the textbook North American fundraising model, a professional never works solo; rather, he or she is but the leader or coordinator responsible for implementing a fundraising strategy that is team driven. As the vast professional fundraising literature makes clear, this team is comprised of knowledgeable, dedicated and trained lay volunteers, primarily the members of an organization’s board of directors, along with its professional development staff. “That knowledge and expertise are lacking in Israel,” according to Grinstein.

However, Israeli non-profit organizations who continue to ignore this model do so at their peril. When they approach American donors they are competing with American non-profit organizations that know how to use this knowledge and expertise to their advantage.

In a well-run American non-profit organization, its board members determine its mission, enact policies that reflect this mission, assume legal and fiduciary responsibility, and promote its good name and work within the general community. Moreover, they also assume responsibility for and take an active role in securing funds.

Fisher Howe (2004), one of many contributors to the professional fundraising literature, enumerates the ways in which “individual board members take an active part in specific fundraising activities”:

  • They contribute. Without exception, every member contributes personally and annually.
  • They add names to the mailing list.
  • They help identify and evaluate prospects. Board members know their peers among the individuals, corporations, and foundations most likely to contribute.
  • They assist in cultivation of key prospects.
  • They participate in annual appeals. Personal notes by board members on annual appeals will increase positive responses four- or five-fold.
  • They are the best ones to engage in telephone appeals.
  • They make introductions. Board members are often in the best position to help in this most critical and difficult step in approaching key corporate or foundation officials.
  • They manage or assist in fund-raising events.
  • They accompany staff or another board member on a solicitation. Their participation adds weight to the solicitation.
  • Board members can solicit a contribution – they can make the “ask.”

Fundraising has never been an easy pursuit. In the wake of the worldwide economic collapse of 2008, the repercussions of which are still being felt, it has likely never been harder. Therefore, it is obvious how board members who contribute not only time, experience, and wisdom but also their social connections and money, are a great advantage to a non-profit organization in meeting both its annual and long-term fundraising objectives.

While the traditional Israeli fundraising model succeeds in certain cases, it is usually in those instances where the lone solicitor is both an exceptional personality and the organization’s founder. The founder/fundraiser operates like a champion pole vaulter who, all alone, jumps and consistently clears the bar. Of successes that come to mind, the founders established credibility with donors because they were able to convey their personal vision and the organization’s mission with unmatched clarity and passion. In some cases, these founder/fundraisers had already established their reputations in the community through other venues (famous rabbi, high-ranking IDF officer, retired diplomat etc.), thereby easing their access to major donors.

While some Israelis may tout these examples as evidence of success in fundraising, the American fundraising community refers to this as “founder’s syndrome.” Founder’s syndrome is widely studied in the American context as a problem to be solved precisely because it is inherently fragile. Typically, once the founder is no longer in the picture, the organization has difficulty sustaining its income and guaranteeing its growth.

Successful fundraising most often is the result of a well-planned, well-structured and sustained team effort. Very few non-profit organizations have endured due to the efforts of one individual. While powerful personalities are a fundraising asset, a dependable long-term strategy puts collaboration at its center.

Some may argue that Israel is not North America and North America is not Israel; what works in one setting may not necessarily be appropriate for another. But again, Israelis who reach out to American donors are competing against American organizations, as well as the few, usually larger, Israeli non-profits that have adopted the generally more effective American model. The weakness of the Israeli model becomes even more apparent when one considers that generational shifts in attitudes toward philanthropy demand greater transparency and accountability, more intensive donor stewardship and is less about a visceral emotional connection. Israeli non-profits who cling to the old model will increasingly come face to face with its shortcomings.

Fortunately, several groups already recognize these issues and what is at stake for Israel’s Third Sector. These organizations are working to change the existing cultural patterns through a determined educational process.

One of these organizations is the Penni and Stephen Weinberg Center for Lay Leadership in Israel that was launched in May 2008. It is dedicated to advancing the efficacy of Israel’s non-profit sector and places a particular emphasis on board development. The Center is backed by an array of impressive strategic partners. Sensitive to the lack of history and the resulting sensitivity to the idea of board members’ involvement in fundraising in Israel, the Center projects a milder tone on this topic than does the American literature, but its position is clear nonetheless:

It is recommended that members of the board of directors take an active (*) part in fundraising. They can do this by using their social networks and by leading the fundraising process (meetings with private donors, businesses, representatives of foundations, etc.). Likewise, members of the board of directors can donate personally to the non-profit organization, donate through the corporation they represent and assist in promoting various other fundraising channels.

(*) Emphasis found in original text

The Center for Philanthropy, a division of another Israeli organization, Sheatufim (The Israel Center for Civil Society), is more direct in defining a board member’s fundraising responsibilities:

  • Members of the board of directors must undergo regular training on different aspects of resource development
  • Every member of the board of directors takes upon him/herself an active role in fundraising and/or to make an annual donation to the organization.

The Pradler Program, founded by the Australian Pratt Foundation, is a local mentoring initiative that helps Israeli non-profit organizations to improve their efficiency and efficacy, including the ability to identify and secure funding sources. As part of its training, the Pradler Program works with board members in various aspects of fundraising.

Excellent resources now exist for those Israeli non-profit organizations that recognize the issues and wish to change. But as a colleague noted, while there is a clear need for this kind of leadership development and growth, it remains to be seen how great is the demand and appreciation of its importance. Our concern is that many small- and medium-size non-profits may not realize the necessity for strategic, volunteer-driven fundraising until it is too late.

There are some signs of hope on the horizon. In 2011, a group of lay leaders in Ramat HaSharon founded Takdim (“Precedent”). Based partially on the American Federation model, it is run by lay leaders who are supported by a professional staff. Takdim’s lay leadership both personally contributes to the organization and actively fundraises on its behalf. Takdim represents a willingness to adopt a more effective, broader fundraising model along with the recognition of the need to look closer to home for financial support.

The need for this approach is especially relevant as the philanthropic world continues to feel the sting of the 2008 worldwide financial crisis and as Israel’s economy continues to demonstrate its own exceptional tenacity. Ironically, to succeed with Israeli donors, Israeli non-profits will most likely need to adopt a more American approach. The old model of one person foraging for money on behalf of an institution not only is becoming less effective in the American context; sophisticated Israeli donors, mostly from the business world, are hardly likely to appreciate being on the receiving end of the “rich uncle” approach.

Nevertheless, too many Israeli non-profits persist with the notion that a good fundraiser is someone who will “go out and bring back the money.” This all too common attitude in Israel, though it must be emphasized one not unknown in North America, typically leads to a revolving door phenomenon; fundraiser follows fundraiser as the organization’s leadership laments, “When will we finally find a real fundraiser?”

In today’s world such an attitude is, at best, shortsighted and more likely irresponsible. As demonstrated countless times, a talented fundraiser is the linchpin of any strategic development plan and may accomplish much for the organization. But a professional fundraiser’s potential is realized only when he or she functions, not like the lone pole vaulter, but rather like a quarterback to leading an equally talented and committed team that includes an organization’s board members and other senior staff.

Ardie Geldman has served as executive director at The ARK in Chicago and for AMIT Women in Israel. Harold Berman has served as executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and Young Audiences of Massachusetts. Both have held senior development positions with Israeli non-profit organizations.