The Role of the Volunteer Leader in Israel: A Challenge for Israel Donors and from Donors Around the World

Israeli nonprofit organizations reach out to Jews and non-Jews around the world for support. The financial support they receive comes from foundations, annual community campaigns, wills and bequests and foreign government grants from the U.S. Government and the EU, among others. One of the most common observations that is made by supporters from outside of Israel has to do with the lack of involvement of local Israeli volunteer leadership in the governance and financial sustainability of Israeli nonprofit organizations.

Yes, there have been changes over the last several decades, however, in comparison to the role members of the board of directors or volunteers who are active on the committees of the board of directors, Israel lags behind. This situation has risen because the paid staff of nonprofits in Israel have generally played a dominant role in the organization. Until recently, these have generally made the important decisions guiding the development and implementation of services in the Israeli nonprofit organization.

Over the last ten years there have been a number of exciting developments such as the establishment of MATAN, a variation of the United Way in countries around the world, and the founding of Sheatufim, an initiative by an Israeli philanthropist to change the face of philanthropy and the involvement of Israeli philanthropists in nonprofit organizations. The Joint Distribution Committee has also redirected its Elka Program that was focused on training mid-level managers in the public sector to begin training professionals and volunteer leaders in the voluntary nonprofit sector.

These efforts have brought a new awareness both to the professionals and the volunteer leaders/donors involved in Israeli nonprofit organizations. The change in the board members’ status from people who lent their names to voluntary agencies to participants in the decision-making process to ensure the organizations sustainability and to hold it accountable for the delivery of its services has been a revolutionary turn in the voluntary sector in Israel. It has also meant a change in the perception leaders have of their role and the expectations they have of their relationship with the professional chief executive officer and the other volunteer leaders in the organization.

This has all been a beginning for the nonprofit sector in Israel and there is more that has to be accomplished. Donors, supporters, foundations and governments providing support for Israeli nonprofits can play a very important role in this area.
In my fourteen years with the Israel Office of the UJA-Federation of New York I was happy to see the organization’s interest in the role boards of directors were playing in Israeli nonprofit agencies. The application that was submitted as part of a request for funding included questions about the involvement of the board in the organization. The importance of the board’s role is an essential principle in the operation of a nonprofit organization.

It would be a wonderful addition to the application process of foundations and other funding sources if they would inquire as to the role of the board in overseeing the functioning of the agency as well as exploring their role in acquiring the financial resources that support the organization. I have often maintained that support from overseas sources for Israeli nonprofits should be additive and not part of the basic budget that provides the resources for the services delivered.

There are a few Israeli nonprofits that raise their annual budget almost entirely in Israel based on donations and fees for service. Israeli society has the ability to support its voluntary agencies to a greater degree. There have been examples of organizations that have been very successful in securing support from contributors in the Israeli hi-tech sector. For example, one of the most creative projects has been the ‘Tovanot B’Hinuch Tel Aviv’. According to their briefing materials, it was founded in 2011, and is organized and operated as an autonomous project of Karev Initiatives in Education. It is governed by a steering committee of members of the Israeli business community who have committed substantial multi-year funding to the initiative. They are joined by representatives of several well-known philanthropic foundations.

I would venture to speculate that this is the exception to the rule and not the common experience of most Israeli nonprofit organizations. I would like to suggest that Israeli philanthropists begin to understand that their involvement should be greater than the funds they are providing. They have an important role to play in the life of the nonprofit they are supporting and there is a lesson they should be able to understand from the success of the volunteer leadership in organizations in Jewish communities around the world.

There is no question that if foundations and supporters from around the world would request and/or require Israeli nonprofits to develop active volunteer leadership as a prerequisite for receiving financial support that it would certainly support movement in this direction. Part of the maturation and development of the Israel nonprofit sector is the enhancement and expansion of the role of volunteer leadership and their place on the boards of nonprofit voluntary organizations.

Zionism in the second fifty years of Israel’s existence will see the empowerment of volunteer leaders in shaping Israeli society. The true partnership between the nonprofit organization and its leadership will provide opportunities for encouraging systemic change in the way nonprofits work in the context of Israeli society.

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.