The Challenge of Fundraising in Israel

by Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman

I wrote my first grant proposal in 1997, with little professional experience but armed with a passion for social change. As one of the founders of Mavoi Satum, an organization working on helping agunot (“chained” women), I came to fundraising early as a volunteer, not having ever planned to develop a career in fundraising but having fallen into it, like so many young idealists, out of necessity. We learned as we went, with many bumps along the way, building up the organization as the profession of fundraising in Israel grew up as well.

I’ve been fundraising for a long time now, having become a professional grant-writer in 2005 and opening my own business in 2006. I have some remarkable clients, people working on issues such as Jewish identity, media reform, Israeli democracy, synagogue life, children’s health, religious pluralism, Jewish arts, and of course gender issues. I actually love writing about what my clients do. I derive constant inspiration from the knowledge that there are so many people out there dedicating their lives to making Israel a better society, and who seem able to keep at it no matter what.

But today, I am mostly worried. Israel’s “third sector”, the world of not-for-profit amutot, is getting increasingly difficult to sustain. Fundraising is just much harder than it used to be. Years ago, even as an amateur, I received mostly positive responses to proposals mostly by virtue of commitment to the content. Today, after years of learning how to write with polish, how to conduct evaluations, how to design log-frames and clean budgets, how to match objectives to results, how to keep admin costs down, how to communicate with donors – in short, how to create really fantastic grant proposals that reflect people’s truly outstanding work in the field – I now receive far more ‘no’s than ‘yes’es. It can be very dejecting, and I know I’m not alone in this. There are some great idealists out there who report similar experiences, who are overwhelmed by piles of rejection letters despite creating amazing programs. Many are unsure about what’s next.

This is the new world of Israeli fundraising. I hear it from friends, colleagues and clients. It is much harder to fundraise today than it ever was. Layoffs and salary cuts are standard, programmatic planning is often at the bare minimum, and many of the country’s greatest treasures – the idealists running amutot – are questioning their life missions. Ultimately, many small organizations are considering closing, and others have closed already. This should be troubling to everyone in Israel and the Jewish world.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently released a story that supports these observations:

This year’s “Giving USA,” the annual yearbook of American philanthropy, reverses the story it told last year about how giving fared in the recession. It now says donations fell by higher percentages in 2008 and 2009 than at any other time in the past five decades – even though last year the report said that donations in those two years had declined only slightly or held steady. What’s more, it now says the recession cloud may hover for years, and it could be as long as 2016 before donations return to levels raised before the economy soured.

This is the worst time for fundraising in America in fifty years! There are simply fewer donors, most of whom have less money and more fears. Donors also have far more restrictions, more concerns about the organizations themselves, and less restraint in offering interference and making demands of organization. Philanthropic dollars are in shorter supply and harder to come by, and there are no indications that this situation will change any time soon.

The obvious response is that Israeli amutot should be less reliant on American dollars, a coherent claim made by many before the current economic crisis. This makes a lot of sense – after all, if the programs service Israeli society, Israeli citizens should be their main supporters. Plus, the world seems to think that Israel has ridden out the economic crisis well, and there are some thousand new millionaires created in Israel every year, so there is clearly a shidduch to be made here between amutot and Israeli potential givers.

There are still many hurdles ahead, however, in the development of local Israeli philanthropy. For one thing, there is virtually no culture of philanthropy in Israel – as cited by Hillel Schmid in eJewish Philanthopy. The current movement to create a philanthropic culture among the elites, now in its sapling stages, has unfortunately been accompanied thus far by an overly intrusive and interfering donor model. Some hi-tech exitees seem to think that they can easily apply business models to amutot. “Show me your projected growth, self-sustainability, and world-wide impact, and then we’ll see if you are a good investment,” is the approach I’ve been seeing. An “investment” in an amutah is very different from an investment in a start-up, and many potential Israeli philanthropists don’t understand that yet.

Moreover, one of the greatest obstacles to building a grass-roots fundraising culture in Israel – in addition to the many obstacles keenly noted by Schmid – is the low salary scale. Israelis are currently on a crusade about cottage cheese prices not because cottage cheese is so expensive relative to the rest of the world – it is not – but because Israeli salaries do not match living expenses so cottage cheese feels expensive. So many Israelis struggle to make it to the end of the month, so philanthropy is simply off the radar.

I’m looking for sources of hope and optimism. I think that work on developing both a grass-roots and leadership-level culture of philanthropy in Israel – one that respects the work of not-for-profit as distinct from for-profit, and that respects the ability of social visionaries to build programs without a heavy, hi-tech hand of donors – is critical for the future of the third sector. I also think the government has to consider a serious immediate rescue of small and medium amutot. Government ministries are notorious for their paperwork and regulations, as well as for allocations according to protektziya. Netanyahu would do well to try and clean up this process and make it just a little easier for amutot to get money from the government, especially from offices like ezvonot (estates) that have the funds but waste their time harassing amutot.

Finally, I think that just as there has been a movement in the past 15-20 years to educate Israeli leaders and celebrities about Jewish culture and identity, it’s time to educate for social responsibility and philanthropy. The funds are out there, but the consciousness is not. There needs to be a long-term plan for making Israel’s third sector self-sustaining via support from new Israeli philanthropists who deeply care.

Until then, I continue to worry for the future of small amutot, and for Israeli society at large.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a writer, researcher, educator and consultant. You can read about her not-for-profit work at