Israel’s “Almost Secret” Philanthropic Sector

philanthropyBy Avital Ingber

Israel is a complex land of contrasts and contradictions obvious to most tourists, even at a cursory level. But, the allure of Tel Aviv’s beaches and cuisine, the history and majesty of Jerusalem or the resort culture of Eilat are often all that we see. Seldom does a visit to Israel include an immersive experience into the burgeoning philanthropic sector. Having recently celebrated my tenth anniversary as a professional with The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, I took sabbatical leave to spend time in Israel and I experienced a fascinating journey into the dynamic new world of Israeli philanthropy.

Let’s dispel the myth upfront: Israel has many wonderful philanthropists who generously give of their time, resources and expertise to address compelling issues. The country is filled with inspiring and entrepreneurial philanthropic activity.

Over the course of sixty meetings with stakeholders within Israel’s emerging philanthropic scene, including with philanthropists, foundation professionals, nonprofit organizations, attorneys and accountants, I developed a far more robust understanding of the inner workings of Israel’s charitable system.

It is true that Israel’s roots as a socialist society have had a marked impact on charitable enterprise. Many Israelis continue to see the government as responsible for addressing most – if not all – social issues. Government centrality is even seen in the way mega-philanthropists will seed innovative ventures, but envision the government as assuming control once the project is mature. Simultaneously, and in contradiction, there is skepticism about the government’s ability to tend to all of Israel’s social issues.

We speak about money in objective terms, yet we know that it is highly subjective. Likely a product of its socialist roots, many Israelis tend to eschew conversations about money, and charitable giving is done very discretely. The very term “philanthropist” is frowned upon and even those giving millions of shekels annually will shun the label. Peer-to-peer fundraising, which is the backbone of America’s largess, is rare. Philanthropic discretion may be admired by some, but it mitigates the ability to organize around issues and leverage one another’s work. Until recently, seldom would philanthropists partner with one another, but this is changing through efforts of entities like the Shahaf Foundation, Sheatufim and Jewish Funders Network Israel.

The partnerships that have formed are often the result of business or army relationships. The nonprofit space is an amalgam of influences stemming from the army, business, government and major players like The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish National Fund.

Given Israel’s size, mega-philanthropists seek national opportunities rather than regional or local, as well as scalable solutions. Philanthropists tend to be issue-focused, and those prominent charitable individuals develop a reputation for cultivating exceptional expertise in a particular area, akin to what one would expect of nonprofit professionals locally.

The impact of tax-deduction on philanthropic giving merits a study of its own. Most American philanthropists do not say that tax deductions motivate their philanthropy, but few would argue that it impacts on the magnitude of their gifts. Israeli tax-law does provide tax-credits for philanthropic giving (not to be confused with a deduction), but few Israelis know about this. Further, in most cases, taxes are filed by the employer rather than the individual. Israel has no estate tax, meaning there is far less estate planning and private foundations do not exist.

Despite the cultural dynamics and the almost clandestine nature of what is happening, the share of Israeli philanthropic activity funded from Israeli sources is growing. In 2006, 33% of Israeli philanthropic funding stemmed from Israeli sources, by 2013 this number grew to 40%.

The ingenuity of the Start-Up Nation should never be discounted, and a number of initiatives that merit replication in the US have found favor. While we have saving programs that round up your purchases and transfer “the change” to a savings account, Israelis can do this for charity, through a program called ‘Round Up’. Start-Ups are encouraged to pledge a percentage of their company to charity through an organization called Tmura. Not all of the start-ups will be successful, but the impact of those that will is substantial enough to offer promise of huge injections of philanthropic resources. For instance, the sale of Waze generated roughly $1,500,000 for nonprofits in Israel.
What overwhelmed me the most is the way in which Israelis care for one another, without formal nonprofit structures. There is a culture of caring that is both heartwarming and highly-effective in addressing social concerns. Rami Levi, a supermarket owner, is but one example. He provides the groceries required by the surviving Fogel children, whose parents and siblings were killed in a terrorist attack. This nationally publicized example is indicative of the mutual consideration one finds in Israel.

I am proud to work for an organization, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which has been strategic and thoughtful about our investments in Israel and continues to change and innovate. Almost all of the programs being funded through Federation’s Endowment grants are in partnership with Israeli philanthropists. This new collaborative model allows us to jointly decide how to make an impact on Israeli society.

We can gain so much from deepening our understanding of Israeli philanthropy. We might learn from innovative ventures, discover ways to put our philanthropic resources into the most impactful projects, but most importantly, we can strengthen our bonds with our brothers and sisters in Israel.

Avital Ingber is the Chief Development Officer and Managing Director of United Jewish Endowment Fund at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Avital returned this fall from taking a sabbatical in Israel to explore the philanthropic scene.