Is the GA Scamming Israeli Nonprofits?

Screen capture 2018 General Assembly

By A Senior Israeli Nonprofit Consultant

It’s a real problem. I just got another call from an Israeli nonprofit organization that had paid $11K to have a booth at the upcoming General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America – this year hosted in Tel Aviv – and I just want to tell them save your money and stay home.

The organization that contacted me is a smallish amtua (Hebrew for nonprofit) whom I had never heard of before. Although they do good work and make an impact, they are not an organization with a professional marketing or fundraising program. They know very little about the Federation system, structure, or culture of the American Jewish institutional and philanthropic world. What would these people do at the GA? What would they do with their booth to capture the attention of the thousands of passers-by and if they did actually grab someone’s attention, how would they somehow translate that brief meeting into money for their cause. I can’t see how this organization without name recognition and splashy marketing could have much chance of making anything out of it.

I am not saying that they would never be able to get funding from any Federation. Their program could very well appeal to some. But the $11,000 they were going to spend on the GA is 3% of their total budget and they were simply not knowledgeable enough or equipped to make anything out of the GA.

Another organization, slightly larger with a higher profile, but who are not currently funded by any Federation and do not yet have any real contacts in that world, shelled out $30K for a booth to themselves. (For $11K you share the booth with other organizations.) They were panicking because they had assumed that for this much money they were also going to be given a list of conference attendees so that they could directly contact the people that they wanted to meet and set up meetings. They contacted me to help them figure out what to do now.

It seems that many Israeli nonprofit staff and lay leadership have a total lack of understanding as to what the GA is, who attends, what they do there, and what attendees and organizers hope to get out of the experience.

The GA is the gathering of all of the staff and lay leadership involved in the Jewish Federations across North American whose primary purpose is to support Jewish life, community, and identity in America. The majority of the dollars raised by Federations go to programs and institutions that deal with these subjects in their local communities. The GA, even in Israel, will deal in large part with North American Jewish community subjects. There is of course learning about Israel, but the emphasis is on the relationship between North American Jews and Israel, and how connecting their constituents to Israel helps them strengthen their Jewish identity and increase their participation in their home Jewish communities. That and of course increase giving to their Federation.

Israeli nonprofit directors need to understand that the leadership of North American Jewish communities are not coming to the GA in Israel to learn about Israeli nonprofits and select new ones to support.

The booths are not on the schedule and many attendees may never visit this area. If they do, they are most likely just passing through, giving a few organizations they recognize a brief visit. A very well marketed booth could capture the attention of the passersby, but it would take some doing. And there is no way to guarantee that your booth’s visitors have any power or capacity to give you money anyway.

When I was ranting about this to my Israeli partner, he came to the conclusion that the GA, which is selling Israeli amutot these booths at such exorbitant prices, is in effect scamming them. With how little money most Israeli amutot have, and how unlikely it is that the majority of them could translate the opportunity into sufficient new major donations to justify the expense, well, I can see how he sees it that way.

But I don’t think it is a scam. I think that for major Israeli nonprofit organizations that already have a very high profile and receive donations from the federations and/or foundation trustees present, it is a great opportunity to stay at eye level. Magen David Adom, Friends of the IDF, the Hebrew University or Technion can more afford the booths and will no doubt use the time and money spent very well.

The onus of responsibility is on the Israeli nonprofit to know on what they are spending so much money. If they don’t know anything about what the GA is, who is coming and what they will be doing there, then ask someone. I counseled all of my clients not to get a booth and even several of them who had absolutely no connections to Federations or the subjects being discussed to not bother going at all as even the individual entrance fee is high for the smaller organizations.

So many Israeli organizations seem to blithely buy booths for the event, naively and foolishly assuming that the GA attendees are there for them.

The reality is that Israeli nonprofits need to better understand North American Jews and their philanthropic institutions if they hope to enter into relationships with them. I do think that they should strengthen this relationship, but I simply don’t think that buying a booth is going to help them do it.

Even more importantly, the entire Israeli nonprofit sector is going to have to start fundraising more in Israel, because the North Americans have problems of their own to which they must attend. Frankly we Israelis must at this point in our country’s evolution be able to support our own nonprofit sector or else what does that really say about the health of our society.