How American Fundraisers for Israeli Causes Tackle the Year-End Philanthropy Rush

The American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA) donors' mission to Israel during Operation Protective Edge last summer; photo courtesy AFMDA.
The American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA) donors’ mission to Israel during Operation Protective Edge last summer; photo courtesy AFMDA.

By Maayan Jaffe

For local fundraising organizations in a marketplace saturated with similar and competing causes, it can be hard enough to break through the noise leading up to Dec. 31, when donors traditionally make significant philanthropic decisions ahead of the New Year. For those groups looking to raise support for causes abroad – especially for those in Israel, where the political climate could pose additional challenges for American fundraisers – the barriers are steeper.

This uncomfortable playing field, however, forces “American Friends” affiliates of Israeli organizations to work smarter and more strategically.

“We’ve evolved,” says Doron Krakow, executive vice president of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU). “We’ve gone from being a mom-and-pop entity to one with a more strategic identity to it.”

AABGU has raised $60 million this year, $19 million more than it did in 2013. What’s the secret sauce? Krakow, saying he wouldn’t call it a “secret,” notes that AABGU has worked over the past half-decade to implement “the best attributes of what fundraising organizations should include” – a strong marketing and public relations team, dynamic programming and events, and deeply enriching engagement opportunities for donors (including young leaders).

American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA), which supports the Israeli emergency medical services organization, is on target to close out 2014 with $40 million raised – up $4 million from the year before and $17 million more than 2012. AFMDA Chief Executive Officer Arnold Gerson says that Israel’s Operation Protective Edge and a capital campaign to raise funds for a blood center in Ramle contributed to the organization’s 2014 success. But like AABGU, there was a longer-term shift in the organizational mindset, with Gerson citing a four-year effort to shift AFMDA’s marketing strategy.
“Our marketing approach was gloom and doom. … We really shifted to say, ‘MDA is an organization there 24/7, in peace times and in war,’” Gerson tells

Krakow stresses the importance of thinking outside the box. A few years ago, AABGU launched a new series of missions for top donors to locations outside of Israel – places about which Ben-Gurion University (BGU) faculty members have some level of expertise. For example, two years ago, AABGU took a mission to the Jamaican capital of Kingston, where a BGU historian spent four days exposing AABGU leadership to a Jewish community that was largely unfamiliar to them. (Kingston at one time had the largest Jewish population in the Americas.)

Last year, AABGU’s trip to the Balkans sold out in three weeks and had a waiting list of 20 people.

“Out of the box? Yeah, this is certainly out of the box,” Krakow tells “But people in the major gifts philanthropy world are well-traveled and accustomed to having compelling and exciting experiences on different parts of the globe. … The secret sauce here is blowing them away with content and quality, ensuring whatever touch you have with a member of your community – donor or prospect – is a touch that leaves them glad they had it.”

Some effective trips for donors, however, don’t need to be “out of the box.” For instance, from Dec. 1-3, Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools – the U.S.-based organization supporting an Israeli education network with more than 200 institutions – took its board members on a mission to the Jewish state to see the Sci-Tech schools in action.

“This was a very exciting visit and opportunity to see the important success Sci-Tech schools have in Israel,” said Edith Everett, chairman of the board of Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools. “The students, teachers, and corporate partners were so enthusiastic, it was heartwarming.”

AFMDA, meanwhile, has honed in on storytelling. Marketing pieces highlight the faces and voices of Magen David Adom’s (MDA) Israeli staffers, and celebrate babies born in MDA ambulances as well as lives saved on Israel’s roads.

“Because we have focused on peacetime messaging, when Protective Edge came, the fact that we shifted back to crisis mode was more impactful,” Gerson says.

Helping Americans understand MDA can be challenging, since most people assume the organization is funded by the Israeli government – when in fact, the majority of its funds are generated from private donations. Gerson says some Americans, while sitting in their protected environment, struggle to grasp what is going on in Israel. While AFMDA takes missions to Israel, it also sets up donors who travel to Israel privately with VIP tours of MDA facilities.

Additionally, AFMDA manufactures about 100 ambulances per year for MDA in an Indiana-based plant. When a donor chooses to fund an ambulance, AFMDA has the ambulance brought to the donor’s hometown before it is shipped to Israel. AFMDA also tracks the ambulances’ work over time and conveys that information to the donor.

This year, AFMDA ran a $500,000 matching grant program and, for the first time, tied some its recent campaigning to the popular “Giving Tuesday” – the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. The organization has also increased its use of social media.

Erik Levis, AFMDA’s assistant director of press relations and editorial content, says the group used a Giving Tuesday kickoff gala and annual dinner to transition into an effective online donor campaign. A new staffer has focused on donor engagement through Facebook and other social media. While social media efforts have not directly raised significant funds, Levis says they have made for a noteworthy conversation-starter and help raise awareness for the AFMDA brand.

Ilene Schneider, a resident of Orange County in California and an active donor to Israeli causes, says she gives to Israeli organizations because she feels that Israelis are “family.”

“They’re my people,” she says, adding that marketing efforts focusing on the people on the ground themselves are the most compelling.

Krakow acknowledges that some American organizations looking to raise funds for Israel of late are experiencing challenges because of the political climate – namely, the influence of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement’s anti-Israel advocacy and the general disengagement of young Jews from the Israel issue.

“I know there are organizations having trouble engaging donors with Israel and leaving them energized and inspired,” says Krakow.

With that in mind, AABGU is tapping into donors who are already passionate about the Jewish state, while promoting the more specific cause of the Negev to those who might not be aware of it.

“In the Negev [there] is the unfinished business of nation-building,” Krakow says. “It’s a powerful, positive, and opportunistic theme. There are plenty of people that are passionate about Israel that are just not exposed to what is happening in the Negev. I think we can go 10, 15 or 20 years [fundraising from that cohort] without feeling we are running up against a ceiling.”

Maayan Jaffe is an Overland Park-based freelance writer. Reach her at or follow her on Twitter, @MaayanJaffe.