Taking Advantage of a Natural Disaster at the Expense of the Israeli Establishment

All of us in the nonprofit sector are continually challenged when it comes to fundraising. We are always looking for a new angle to market our causes and/or agencies. We try very hard to find a message that will resonate with both our present donors and our potential donors. We look for ways of spreading the messages about the people we serve and the services we provide.

In seizing opportunities to get the word out, occasionally we are able to use an unanticipated situation that may be the result of a tragedy or a natural disaster. Ideally we very carefully evaluate the situation and try and identify the ways we can make a real difference in people’s lives. However, at times tragedies are taken advantage of for the good of the Jewish community or specific nonprofit organizations.

The Jewish community’s response to storms like Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, and to acts of war and terrorism in Israel, mostly exemplified a positive way to respond to disaster and tragedy. Whether it meant providing funds for relief services to meet emergency needs or helping Israeli society return to normal after the Second Galilee War, the Jewish community has sought to respond to human needs.

Without a doubt the ability of organizations to respond to immediate needs is one of the most creative aspects of the voluntary sector. Israel and the Jewish community around the world can feel a great sense of accomplishment both in responding to their own needs and the needs of non-Jewish communities around the world, as illustrated by aid given after the tsunami a few years ago and storms and earthquakes in different parts of the world.

However, this picture is sullied by those organizations that take advantage of tragedy or disaster for their own advancement. One way they have done so is to raise funds for needs that may not be as great as portrayed. It is not that the need does not exist; rather they exaggerate the existing need or portray it differently from the actual situation. When this happens we must ask ourselves whose interests are really being served: the people in need or the group soliciting the contributions. I remember that in 1984-85 inflation in Israel was very high, and prices were exorbitant in comparison to salaries. Prices were going up every day, and it was hard to resist the impulse to buy items that were not needed but would go up in price the next day. Because of continual devaluations of the shekel, funds raised through the Jewish federation campaigns and transferred to Israel were worth more shekels every day.

At the time I was working for the United Israel Appeal as its Director of Information and Evaluation in the Israel Office. One day I came across a copy of a national United Jewish Appeal fundraising advertisement that was appealing for people to pay their pledges to their community campaigns because of the high inflation rate. At the time I told the director of the Israel Office that this was a distortion of the truth.

Because of the devaluations, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee were actually receiving more shekels than they needed for their annual budget. Every time they transferred and exchanged dollars, those dollars stretched further, so that they needed fewer dollars to meet their obligations. However, the UJA campaign was using the high rate of inflation as an appeal to raise funds in a way that distorted the reality.

Now to the present. Over the last few days, Israel has experienced a terrible winter storm that has had a devastating impact on Jerusalem and communities in the surrounding hills. It has caused power outages and shortages of food and equipment in many areas. In the low-lying areas of the Arava and the Negev there has been flooding. And there has not been that much snow in Jerusalem since 1879, as reported by one newscaster.

On December 14, an e-mail appeal appeal was sent out on behalf of an Israel organization that provides assistance to the poor, Yad Eliezer. The appeal read as follows:

“Israel’s neediest families are hit hardest in this storm:

  • No boots or proper snow gear = frozen, frostbitten, wet hands and feet
  • No blankets = shivering, sleepless nights
  • No heating = cold, drafty days in stone Israeli apartments
  • No electricity = not even a hot drink to warm them from the inside

Join us NOW, in reaching our goal of purchasing 10,000 warm winter quilts, at a cost of $125,000 (just $12.50 per quilt), which will be distributed IMMEDIATELY to provide for those needy, freezing families, the young children and the elderly.”

The letter requesting donations does not acknowledge the organized response to the storm that coordinated the services of the police, the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Division, Magen David Adom, municipal services, and other organizations dealing with emergency needs. For example, the Home Front Division worked with the Jerusalem Municipality to distribute food and blankets to isolated people. Professional social workers under the auspices of the Municipality answered phones from the beginning of the storm through Shabbat and continuing as of this writing.

The Israel Electric Company had crews working 24 hours a day throughout the country to restore power wherever possible. Many of the power outages were caused by fallen trees and it was sometimes difficult to remove the trees and reconnect the wires in certain areas.

However, as you read the fundraising appeal requesting contributions, you are left with the impression that if you do not contribute there will be people who will not receive blankets or supplies or adequate clothing. It does not suggest the reality of the coordinated response, in which Yad Eliezer participated. The appeal leaves the recipients with the feeling that Israel is not responding to this very difficult situation.

Who is being served by the appeal letter: the organization or the people in need? This is an example of an organization using the worst storm in more than a hundred years in Jerusalem to further its own aims.

What would have been the impact of the letter if Yad Eliezer had acknowledged the services being provided by the various Israeli public services and how it was coordinating its efforts with them, rather than sending the message that it was concerned only with the need for blankets? Yes, it might not have been as strong a message, but it would have been more truthful. And it would have recognized the efforts being made by the Israeli government and military to cope with the pressing needs. Such an approach would have also strengthened the public-private partnership and let the donors know that Yad Eliezer was leveraging its efforts with those of government services. This way it would have both promoted its own case for giving and strengthened the system of delivering social and human services.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.