Philanthropy in Israel – 2015

There is definitely room for improvement in Israeli philanthropy, which does not reflect the level of action and giving one would expect given the extent of the wealth and capabilities existing in Israel.

philanthropyBy Avi Naor

The announcement by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan that they will donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares, whose current value is estimated at around $45 billion, is both exciting and inspiring, a demonstration of genuine leadership and social responsibility.

In Israel, alongside highly positive reactions, an announcement of this kind – such as previous announcements by Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison and others – also arouses thoughts and contemplation as to where this leaves us, Israeli society. When will an Israeli entrepreneur come out with a similar declaration that will give us a feeling of pride?

A comparison is indeed appropriate between our culture of giving and that which is customary in other Western societies, a culture characterized not only by the volume of giving, but also how it is managed, its aims, and so on.

Until about 20-25 years ago, most of the giving in Israel was done by a small number of wealthy families with a long philanthropic tradition dating back to when they still lived abroad. Some of this giving was even conducted secretly and, rather than being focused, was spread over many spheres, not necessarily with a view or intention to bring about change at the national level.

Besides these families, very few entrepreneurs were involved in giving; moreover, the supportive socialist Israel that followed a welfare-state policy, neither identified with nor supported a local donor culture. At the same time, the attitude to non-Israeli Jewish philanthropy was different, reflecting the approach that this was an obligation that Jews owed to the young country as penance for not taking the step of living there or being a part of it.

In the 1990s, a revolutionary change took place in the culture of giving, in philanthropy, in the approach to social investments, and in the feeling of social responsibility.

As the socialist view gave way to the capitalist approach of a free, privatized and competitive market, new Israeli high-tech companies began to make impressive gains worldwide. Many entrepreneurs were able to participate in this global success, which in turn was translated into personal economic gain, a process that led to changes in the giving environment.

Many of the entrepreneurs and senior managers orchestrated various exit strategies that, for the first time, brought them into contact with large amounts of money and considerable free time.

For many of these entrepreneurs, the new situation raised questions about the personal and family significance of what had happened, and about social commitment and the desire to give something back to society.

A broad group from among this population took weighty personal and family decisions at the strategic level, decisions whose significance was reflected not only in substantial financial investment in the social world, but also in deep personal involvement and management of the operational organizations that they established. The spread of the investments and the decisions about the direction of activity represented a strategic philanthropic approach whose aim was to bring about change (impact) at the national level.

The entrepreneurs of the new philanthropy brought with them the management culture of the business world. Let there be no mistake, they did not see their activity as a business. They only adopted managerial and control processes that are customary in the business world: Defining the objectives and measuring the effectiveness of their investment and the extent to which it met these objectives. Their approach was predicated on the assumption that one cannot manage something that is not measured, and that all actions can and must be measured and evaluated. They demanded from themselves and from their partners complete transparency and reliable, orderly and regular reports.

There is definitely room for improvement in Israeli philanthropy, which does not reflect the level of action and giving one would expect given the extent of the wealth and capabilities existing in Israel. On the other hand, our glass is at least half-full. The change that has taken place in the culture of giving and social investments, – whether in terms of financial volume, the level of donor involvement, and the number of donors – offers very hopeful signs that should be recognized and achievements regarded as praiseworthy. According to a survey undertaken jointly by Committed to Give and the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israelis’ rate of giving is greater than what is commonly thought: Of the four billion philanthropic dollars active in Israel, about 50 percent is provided by Israelis, no doubt a surprising figure, supported by the fact that the rate of Israeli giving has grown annually by around 10 percent.

The relationship with world Jewry in all matters concerning giving and social investments in Israel is slowly changing and assuming a different character. In the past, there was little symmetry: The giver was world Jewry, and the recipient was Israel. The spending was designated according to the government’s request or directive, or according to the giver’s discretion. Today, the relationship is built on partnership and reciprocity. The Israeli investors and their non-Israeli colleagues cooperate by jointly defining the objectives, priorities, management procedures, and everything that genuine partners do, in a spirit of openness, transparency, and mutual respect.

Cooperation extends beyond joint investments. Today we see Israeli members serving on the boards and occupying various positions in international Jewish organizations. The Jewish Funders Network (JFN) regularly has several permanent Israeli members on the board, and I serve as joint chairperson. Similarly, Israelis are now being recruited as board members of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and there are many more examples. This process reflects broad cooperation, between investors and activists around the world and their Israeli colleagues, in jointly defining Jewish activity in Israel and worldwide.

True, the Israeli Mark Zuckerberg has yet to come forward, and we are faced by many challenges. But we should not ignore the massive and steady progress of philanthropy in Israel by social investors and the groundbreaking world of social ventures.

Avi Naor is an Israeli philanthropist and social entrepreneur. With his wife, Eti, he established the Naor Foundation to impact social change in Israeli society on a national level. As one of Israel’s first high-tech entrepreneurs, he was a founder and CEO of Amdocs for over 15 years. In 2014, he received both an Israel Prize and the President’s Award. 

This post is part of a series in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation designed to introduce you to philanthropy from an Israeli perspective.