Post 9: On Organization: Heavy Hitters Come Together

[eJP note: This post, by Gidi Grinstein, was originally published on May 13, 2008, as part of a series on Philanthropy in Israel. With this year’s Jewish Funders Network conference taking place in Israel, we thought it would be timely to rerun the series.]

Can Jewish philanthropy be transformed? Among other things, the answer depends on the ability of the ‘heavy hitters’ of Diaspora Jewish philanthropy in Israel to join together in order to improve their standing in Israeli society and agree on a number of guiding principles for their operation. Success in doing so will be important for them, as well as for Israel and the Jewish world.

A large portion of Diaspora Jewish philanthropic giving in Israel is from a small group of large givers. They are institutions, most prominently the large Federations who give directly or through the Jewish Agency, other organizations such as Keren HaYesod, a few foundations and individual donors predominantly from the USA but also from Russia, the UK, France, Australia, Canada, or Germany. They are the ‘heavy hitters’ of Diaspora philanthropic giving in Israel.

In addition, the people that advise and inspire the heavy hitters can fit into one large hall as well. This group includes a small number of prominent organizations such as the Jewish Funders Network, leading professionals of large family foundations or the prominent philanthropic advisors in Israel or the USA.

My argument is that this community should come together. This will not only increase their impact on Israel and strengthen their position here but will also be good for Israel.

This post is not a call to compromise philanthropic diversity. Such diversity is essential for the kind of elaborate societal experimentation that can only take place in the non-governmental not-for-profit sector. Obviously, philanthropists can not agree on an exhaustive list of specific projects or grantees, nor should they.

However, there are other areas where agreement, cooperation or coordination among heavy hitters may be of great value. In my opinion, their agenda should comprise of three major issues:

First, they need to identify a number of core issues that require them to operate as a group vis-à-vis the Government of Israel, the Knesset and Israeli society. For example, they need to lobby Knesset to amend tax laws in order to encourage more philanthropic activities by Israelis and in Israel. Also, they may want to discuss with the Prime Minister and the Government of Israel their strategic focus. Or, they may want to consider collectively taking public credit for their work so that ordinary Israelis appreciate their commitment, dedication and generosity (see post no. 5 on the disconnect from the Israeli middle class).

Second, they should discuss and evaluate their philanthropic ethos, core activities and unique value proposition in Israel, as well as exchange views on strategy. I believe that in order to provide unique societal value and to remain a key player in Israel, Diaspora Jewish philanthropy should focus on addressing areas that are subject to government or market failures (see post no. 14 of this series). Identifying these areas is a challenge in and of itself. Dealing with them is even more complicated since they often require fundamental shifts of values, priorities and pattern of conduct. Both challenges require extensive exchange among the philanthropic community.

Finally, they should articulate some basic standards and expectations that they will commit to apply to all of their activities. These standards may have to do with grant applications and reporting, as well as with the quality of management by grantees (see posts no. 10, 11 or 12 of this series).

Such coming together is not only important for the heavy hitters themselves but also for their ‘long tail’. This ‘long tail’ comprises of a very large number of givers – individual donors or smaller family foundations – who give in smaller sums and do so directly to their grantees and not through any organized mechanism. They simply write a check or charge their credit card over the internet.

This size of this long tail should not be underestimated. The total sum of these smaller gifts may match or exceed the sum of all giving by the heavy hitters, even if some of them may be minimal.

Hence, coordination among the heavy hitters is also important because of its impact on the ‘long tail’. Most often, members of the long tail – i.e. smaller givers – will not participate in setting standards. But they may adhere to standards that were set by the thoughtful leaders of the philanthropic world. They may use their contacts to verify information that they have been given but will not spend time and money on an extensive and expensive due diligence process before making their donation.

This is why I believe that the coming together of the heavy hitters may also be important for Israel. In this case, a small group can make a difference. They will not only make their own philanthropy more focused and effective but also improve the conditions for philanthropic giving in Israel and generate a ripple effect across the entire community of givers.

Gidi Grinstein is the Founder and President of the Reut Institute.