Israeli Nonprofits and Diaspora Funders and Donors: Is An Authentic Partnership Possible?

PartnershipIt is the rare Israel nonprofit that develops a model of partnership in which the donor participates in making the decisions that have an impact on the planning and implementation of the supported programs.

By Stephen G. Donshik

Jewish professionals and volunteer leaders have learned that people give to people and not organizations. This means that if a nonprofit wants to receive support for its organization and programs, there have to be a personal connection and relationship built between its professional and/or volunteer leaders and the people they seek to attract and cultivate to support the organization.

One of the issues that plague the relationship between Israel nonprofits and their funders, donors, supporters, and contributors around the world is developing a real sense of partnership. This is not always as easy as it sounds.

The word “partnership” is used lightly and sometimes inaccurately. Often donors are asked to partner with the organization, when the only thing it really wants is a donation. Is asking someone to provide the financial resources so the organization can implement the program really a partnership?

More progressive organizations consider asking the donors if they are interested in developing or maintaining a relationship with the staff responsible for implementing the program. These organizations send frequent reports to donors to keep them abreast of developments that could encourage them to maintain their support of the programs from year to year.

However, it is the rare Israel nonprofit that develops a model of partnership in which the donor participates in making the decisions that have an impact on the planning and implementation of the supported programs. It is more comfortable for organizations to keep their donors and funders at arm’s length.

Yet there have been a number of attempts by Israeli nonprofits to develop boards and committees that include representation from communities outside of Israel. Some even invite individual foundations, funders, or donors to participate in ongoing committee processes, while others recruit supporters to join a planning process or participate in the governance decisions that oversee their finances or programs.

There have also been efforts to reengineer how Israel-Diaspora philanthropic ventures bring leadership together, changing the way Israelis and their institutions relate to people outside of Israel. We have witnessed a number of creative and innovative efforts to develop partnerships between Jewish communities around the world and Israelis, such as, Project Renewal, Partnership 2000, and Partnership2Gether. One Israeli organization serving children at risk developed a similar model with the aim of replicating its premier program throughout Israel and in Jewish communities around the world.

These initiatives have struggled and continue to struggle with how to enable their participants to overcome both the language barrier and cultural differences in verbal exchanges and written materials. In my many years of experience there has always been a gap in each side’s understanding of the other. It did not matter whether there was simultaneous translation during meetings or whether the written materials were prepared so that each member of a committee was able to read background papers or minutes of previous meetings in his or her native language. The words’ cultural nuances were interpreted differently by the person reading the translation.

I have vivid memories of meetings of boards made up of both Israeli and New Yorkers being held by video conference. Given the involvement of Israeli government officials, as well as the professional staff of the Israeli organization initiating the video conferences, the dominant language was Hebrew, while the New Yorkers heard a translation of the conversation. Often discussions were cut short when there was a real cultural difference in a policy or program, and they ended with this simple line: “We do not do it this way in Israel.” At the end of the day, the challenges of communication eventually gave way to serious levels of frustration: The overseas partner in New York cut back its funding, even though it was one of the founding partners along with representatives of five ministries from the Government of Israel.

If these are the frustrations that leaders experience who are involved with large organizations that have the resources to provide translated materials and simultaneous translation at meetings, it is not difficult to imagine how funders and donors experience their attempts to be involved in the decision-making processes in small Israeli nonprofit organizations. For example, Israeli nonprofits have to submit a certified audit to the Office of the Registrar of Nonprofits, and of course, it is in Hebrew. This important document is rarely translated and so is not available to overseas donors and supporters. This means that a committed donor who would like to be involved in a finance committee of a nonprofit in Israel cannot even study the audit if he or she cannot understand Hebrew.

The challenge we face in Israel-Diaspora philanthropic ventures that are authentic partnerships is making possible real communication between the Israeli professionals and volunteer leaders and those in Jewish communities around the world. It is a matter of the leaders not only speaking with each other but also ensuring they develop a common language, including the cultural nuances. In addition, there needs to be a way to provide materials in Hebrew and English that truly communicate not only the content of the documents but also the subtle messages that are embedded in the language of those who prepared the material. These are the beginning steps necessary to create the possibility of building an authentic philanthropic partnership between Israelis and Jews around the world.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.