The Challenges of Community Foundations in Israel

Israeli municipalities have begun to develop community foundations similar to those in existence around the world. The purpose of these Israeli foundations is to secure financial support from people both in Israel and abroad and to raise funds for community-related projects. In Israel it is not unusual for the mayor of the city to be chair of the foundation’s board of directors or at least a member of the board.

It is also not unusual for the members of the board to be composed of people closest to the mayor, as well as those who have an interest in the projects and programs in need of support. In many cases, the foundation’s leadership is more focused on what they can do with the needed funds than in cultivating friends in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world. This often leads to a lack of a strong leadership on the local board in Israel and an absence of involved supporters overseas, which ultimately prevents the community foundation from reaching its goals.

More often than not Israeli mayors focus on travel to the United States, Europe and South America, in addition to other locations, to raise funds from individual donors. The success of these trips often depends on the charisma of the mayor and his ability to impress upon the donors the importance of the projects and programs in the particular Israeli community. Unfortunately, these kinds of trips rarely result in the development of a committed and sustained leadership who are committed to the Israeli community instead. Instead, they merely create a personal attachment to the local politician. As such, donations are forthcoming as long as the mayor is in office, but when he is either defeated or retires, the community is not guaranteed continued support from the people who contributed in the past.

What Israeli community-based foundations lack is strategic development on the local level. There is neither an attempt to develop Israeli donors, in general, or to reach out to potential supporters in their own communities. Last year, the Ramat HaSharon community broke the mold and created a foundation similar to the Federation model in North America.

What is important is that there is an effort to cultivate Israeli leadership that will assume responsibility for community-based foundations so that there is not a reliance on funds coming from outside the country. Not too long ago I was approached by local politicians to assist them in raising funds for a country club type recreational center in my own community. I was approached because of my many years working for the Federation system in North America. I said that as soon as every family in the community pledged NIS 1,000, I would be prepared to assist them in approaching donors outside of Israel.

We would need to recruit the residents of the community to give upwards of NIS 25, 50 or 100 a month so that we could say that all the families were participating in the local campaign. Once the local residents had demonstrated their investment and commitment to the recreational center then I was prepared to assist the community foundation in approaching people from outside the country.

It was not just a matter of the raising the needed funds but on cultivating a group of committed, local supporters. There needed to be a board of directors that would monitor the development and functioning of the community foundation and the newly built recreational center. A group of active, committed and dedicated volunteer leaders would ensure a level of accountability that had not been previously established in the community.

Of course, it meant that the mayor could not dictate to the community foundation nor control the recreational center. He could be part of the process, but in order for the foundation to be sustained there had to be a board that was empowered to work independently and coordinate with both the municipality and the overseas leadership. Once these changes were implemented it meant that the foundation and its projects would belong to the community and would be able to sustain itself beyond the term of the mayor.

Unfortunately, this lack of a local infrastructure is the norm for Israeli foundations. That is why there are a number of steps that must be implemented in order to strengthen local community foundations in Israel. This could be an opportunity for one of the country’s existing organizations committed to supporting the maturation of the voluntary sector in Israel. This process has implications for not only for the community foundations but also for the local nonprofit organizations that are under the umbrella of the foundation. Together it would provide a wonderful opportunity to develop the local volunteer leadership in the foundation and the local organizations and it would ultimately strengthen the community.

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 non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.