Is Now the Time for the Israeli Nonprofit Sector to Become Self-Reliant?

By Lee Caspi

By now, we are all aware of the major challenges faced by nonprofits due to the Coronavirus crisis. Adapting programming and enabling staff to work remotely are hurdles some organizations will struggle to overcome. Of even greater concern to many are the fundraising challenges of this strange new world. For those of us raising money for organizations in Israel, this most recent drama on the global stage may be speeding up a process that began gradually a few years ago: a shift towards increased fundraising within Israel.

Much has been written in recent years about how giving priorities are changing within North American Jewish philanthropy. Two trends that seem to be gaining ground even as overall giving to Israel remains high, are a downward shift in the proportion of total giving to Jewish causes, and a smaller share for causes in Israel. The theories for why this is happening are varied: from a growing rift between Israeli and American Jewry; to a weakening affiliation to Judaism; to a perception that Israel is no longer the poor country it was in the years after its founding.

Whatever the reasons, it is becoming increasingly clear to many Israeli nonprofit professionals that we need to get better at raising money domestically. It is also clear that the Coronavirus crisis will speed this process up. As citizens of one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic globally, it is expected and understandable that Jews in the US will focus their giving on the local community’s needs in the coming months and years.

It is also undeniable that Israel has become a wealthier country in recent decades, largely as a result of the country’s High Tech boom. But while a culture of philanthropic giving is beginning to grow here, we are still very new at this. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics has documented a rise in charitable giving by Israeli households, of which over 50% now regularly donate, but a vast majority give less than 580 US Dollars a year. One more statistic will help bring my point home: though some 120,000 Israelis now have available assets of at least 1 million US Dollars, “less than 1% of them donate above $30K annually to nonprofit organizations.”

Another challenge relates to the types of causes Israeli donors tend to support. According to Committed to Give, an initiative which aims to promote Israeli philanthropy, most Israelis donate to organizations dealing with healthcare, poverty, and religious services. Few choose to give to social change initiatives.

As a fundraiser for an Israeli human rights organization that provides legal aid to Palestinians, I am well aware of the challenges of local fundraising. Donating to the organization I work for – HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual – is considered by many Israelis to be too politically sensitive, even if they fundamentally believe in what we do. A few months ago, I met an Israeli donor to get his take on why this is often the case. He regularly supports our type of cause, and is very dedicated to generally increasing charitable giving in Israel. He said that almost all Israeli anti-occupation and human rights organizations end up knocking on his door, and though he wishes he could help us all, his funds are limited.

I asked if he knows of many other individuals who donate to this type of cause. His answer was, in short, no: though there is a growing understanding among Israelis that they can and should support nonprofits, most avoid giving to causes deemed politically sensitive. Given this reality, it’s clear why an Israeli human rights organization is more likely to cover its funding gaps by turning to North American philanthropists, then by trying to navigate the limited landscape of Israeli donors.

Despite the substantial challenges of fundraising within Israel for a human rights organization, I have developed a personal enthusiasm for the idea. I am truly excited about initiatives such as Committed to Give, which encourage Israelis with personal wealth, mostly achieved through startup companies, to commit a percentage of their fortunes to funding social change initiatives. I also believe there is an inherent value in Israelis giving to organizations like HaMoked: this is our mess, and it’s (also) our job to fix it.

I know from experience that those who are really determined to make it happen, will succeed in raising money from Israelis. HaMoked has increased its individual support base in Israel in the last two years, and even raised money from new Israeli donors during the height of the first wave of Coronavirus. It’s challenging work, and progress is slow, but it’s beginning to happen.

So what’s the bottom line? I guess just to say that although philanthropic giving within Israel is steadily growing, we’re nowhere near self-sufficient yet. In fact, it is unrealistic to expect human rights organizations such as HaMoked to raise their entire budget domestically. We have no choice but to continue turning to philanthropists in North America and elsewhere who are dedicated to the universal values of human rights and the rule of law.

Many of us see and understand that domestic needs in North America are growing, and that means some of the financial support toward Israel may decline. We hope that more and more Israelis who are able, will step up and fill the gap. Our ultimate goal is to work in partnership with donors in Israel and from abroad who share common values and a commitment to helping Israel become a more just country. This is how we can ensure that Israel’s vibrant civil society can keep doing the many important things it does

Lee Caspi is Development Director at HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, an Israeli human rights organization providing free legal aid to Palestinians and conducting strategic litigation to promote greater respect for human rights.