So Long and Thanks for All The Fish: a Suggestion for Israeli Philanthropy

by Jonny Cline

Ben Gurion said that what the government did not provide the people do not need.

Ben Gurion was wrong.

You know what, let me temper that comment – what Ben Gurion said is no longer relevant.

Whether the details of Israel’s birth were governed by circumstance or by design is not the point. The fact that the fledgling State was destitute, struggling against foes internal and external, and as unstable as any newborn may be expected to be until finding her own legs, so to speak, is very pertinent to the methods of ruling that were implemented at the time.

I would like to think that, besides the economic politics of the ruling party from independence through the 70’s, the lack of acceptance of a third sector in Israel (to act alongside the Public, 1st, and Business, 2nd, sectors) was necessitated by a difficult combination of a lack of resources and a need to prioritize. During this period, far from the oppression of the 3rd sector in other socialist, communist and monarchist regimes existent at the same time, the Israeli social activist was able to operate under the laws residually incumbent in the land. For many issues, Israeli law was either based upon, or deferred to, British law; on issues pertaining to the registration and management of what we now call non-profit organisations (NPOs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs), charities, social sector or third sector initiatives, etc., the legislation in place was the Ottoman Law of Associations, dating back to 1909 when the Turks adopted the French system that suited their needs.

I would ask to put to one side for a moment the Jewish and Islamic view of Tzedaka/Zakat as a system of social justice, and would like to look at it through a more modern prism of social investment (the two have the basically the same aim and endpoint, but the latter I would like to propose as a framework to be adopted).

In 1998, Robert Harstook wrote an article in Fund Raising Management entitled “77 Reasons why People Give”. This article lists reasons ranging from the inspired to the egocentric, and is a great place to look to find insights into the motives of either your own giving or that of your donors. I would like to concentrate on the realm of the logical, and to propose a theory of why we are where we are in Israel, 2011, and where we should go from here.

To present a diametrically opposite system to that of BG, allow me to suggest that of laissez-faire, or pure, capitalism.

The weaker sectors of society are a drain on the resources of the stronger. Taking into account the fact that capitalism is based upon the creation of wealth through production and consumerism, this drain on the resources of society must be solved, not merely supported.

The way to do this, it appears, without having the ability to “dispose of” the weaker elements of society in any one of the Spartan ways designed by mankind over the centuries, is to enable the weak … not to be.

If the weak are not weak, they will not be a drain. If they can break even, make as much as they cost, they may not be a drain, but they are also not a resource. If a way could be found for them to create more than they cost, to produce, to advance, then they become a resource. When cycles of poverty become cycles of production and growth, they create wealth and sustain the growth of society – they also, as consumers, enable the rich to become richer, thus advancing the capitalist’s cause.

Without any state intervention, other societies came to the realisation that the investment by those with means in bringing those without to the point at which they become self-sustaining generators facilitates growth for the investor at least as much as it does for the investee.

Let us diverge, for a moment, from logic and take a glimpse at the Jewish ethical stance. The Rambam devised a theory of social investment that comprised of an eight level measuring scale of the effectiveness of giving. The lowest level, according to the Rambam, is the begrudging donation to the needy. The levels go through a combination of willingness to give, consideration for the feeling of shame of the beneficiary, and the purposeful direction of the gift. The highest level is: “to strengthen the name of another Jew by giving him a present or loan, or making a partnership with him, or finding him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he needs no longer [beg from] people.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts of [that belong to] the Poor)

This philanthropic scale has been gefiltered – boiled down to fish – with the lower end of the scale being compared to the giving of a fish, as opposed to the more effective and self-sustaining provision of a fishing rod.

In much the same way that a doting uncle will reward the efforts of his childish nephew by throwing him a coin in encouragement, or as a Pavlovian treat in order to reinforce positive behaviour, our Zionist enterprise has been nurtured by those proud of what we can become and eager to help us get there. During our periods of youth and adolescence that was fine, even necessary, as we could not have made it on out own. The investments made in Israel were not naively altruistic – they were repaid in SROI (Social Return On Investment) comprised of pride, naming opportunities, fame, mitzvah, and any other of the 77 mentioned by Harstook – but all the same it was ok for us to be the recipient of aid from those more able to give. At least it was then.

Winston Churchill is often mis-credited with Former French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau’s having quoted Francois Guizot, saying, “If a man is not a socialist in his youth, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 30 he has no head”.

Two years after turning thirty, in 1980, The Law of Amutot created in Israel a brand of non profit organisational registration that is known only to us. Israeli law finally recognised the relevance of social activist initiatives. It took another quarter of a century before the Government of Israel mentioned the role played by organisations of Israel’s social sector in a cabinet meeting following the fiasco of the home front during the Second Lebanon War.

Our society seems to be maturing.

Since the international economic rollercoaster ride began in 2007, the fundraising paradigm of the average Israeli amuta has had to change. Our old uncle fell on hard times, and we, his “Start-Up Nation” protege, were no longer a child.

Israel’s rate of economic growth in 2010 was over 4.5%, compared to the OECD average of 2.7%. They may still have more, but we are growing faster, and they are hurting.

Israel has realised that Ben Gurion’s centralism is no longer either necessary or apprpriate. Israeli society now realises the need for the Social Sector to act as a force in tandem with the Public and the Private.

Just to present a snapshot:

There are 33,000 amutot listed on Guidestar Israel, with about 1,500 new ones registered each year.

The 3rd sector accounts for almost 10% of the workforce and 13% of the GDP.

… but ….

Israel ranked 36th in the 2010 World Giving Index. 36th! Tucked in there between Nigeria and Sudan. Proud?

I would like to suggest that it is about time we grew up a little more than we already have. Apparently those who “do” do so in approximately the same proportion in Israel (one amuta per 244 people) as they do elsewhere (one NPO per 194 in the US), but those who give/enable/facilitate do not.

The realisation that local investment in the breaking of cycles of poverty is an investment in the prosperity and growth of our own wealth and stability is one with which we, as a society, have yet to come to terms. Our problem is growing, but our ability to reach out for “fish” is not, it is declining.

We can continue reacting to this situation as we have for the last four years – we can push harder, write more requests, advertise more aggresively – or we can stop reacting and start pro-acting!

It really will be quite easy to do. Here are the necessary stages to go through:

  1. Decide to make a difference
  2. Learn how to do it effectively

Of the two, the second is the easier.

Once we have started along the path, once we have, as a society, decided to make the change, we can finally say to our uncles, “so long and thanks for all the fish”, and then we can go out and start providing fishing rods to our neighbours and friends, to invest in the solving of our problem, to facilitate our own growth and our own wealth by enabling the productivity of our own less fortunate elements. I believe that by making such an effort, by being seen to be taking responsibility for our own issues, our uncles may well surprise us by their willingness to leverage our investment with some rods of their own.

It all sounds so grown-up, doesn’t it?

Jonny Cline is the owner and editor of Fundraiser.co.il, owner and director of UK Toremet Ltd, and a Management and Resource Development Consultant for Israeli Non Profits. From time to time, Jonny contributes to eJewish Philanthropy.