Green groups face economic, leadership challenges

Study conducted by Israel’s foremost environmental leaders examines the status of the country’s environmental movement.

June 21, 2011 06:07
Alon Tal

Alon Tal 311. (photo credit: courtesy of university)

A comprehensive study on Israel’s environmental groups that reveals just how economically distressed the country’s green NGOs currently are, among other issues, will be presented to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) on Tuesday afternoon, as the central focus of the Knesset’s official Environment Day, the authors announced.

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The study – called “Israel’s Environmental Movement: Trends, Needs and Potential” and commissioned by the UK-based JMG Foundation – surveyed 98 environmental organizations with a detailed questionnaire, and then conducted in-depth interviews with 30 leaders. Although more than 50 new green groups have been established in past decade and 100 are members of the umbrella organization Life and Environment, overall membership remains low – only three organizations claim more than 5,000 members, while more than half of the green NGOs have 100 or less, according to the report. Meanwhile, only about 25 percent are collecting membership dues, and about half of the groups rely on international funding for over 50% of their budgets, mostly receiving project-based grants rather than long-term financing, the writers say.

“Almost a third of the organizations reported no formal budget at all,” write the authors, headed by Green Movement co-chairman Prof. Alon Tal, Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research. “Yet, on the other end, over half of responding organizations report budgets of over NIS 100,000 – implying sufficient resources for the hiring of at least part-time staff as well as renting offices. While JNF’s prodigious land holdings make it an anomalous ‘outlier’ in any analysis, the large environmental groups report substantial budgets, with a full 10% of respondents (all national groups) reporting budgets that approach the $1 million range.”

Other particularly large groups in addition to Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund include the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel and Israel for Bicycles, both of which also have over 5,000 members each, and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva v’Din), the Israel Association of Ecology and Environmental Sciences and the Sayarut youth movement, which all fall in the 1,000-5,000 range.

“The findings unquestionably suggest that Israel’s environmental community has become more dependent during the past decade than it was previously on international support, particularly from Jewish philanthropy,” the authors write.

But even those who had such seemingly secure funds are now at risk of losing this stability.

“Unfortunately, several foundations that were responsible for the recent “boom years” of international philanthropic support have already begun to phase out support for environmental activities or have announced their intentions to do so imminently,” the report says.

The CRB Foundation, which for the past 15 years has been “a hub for Israel’s green foundations,” recently announced that it is ceasing operations within the next few years, while another financing giant, the Goldman Fund, is disbanding following the death of its namesake, Richard Goldman, according to the authors. 

“For Israel’s green NGO community, this phenomenon should be alarming and constitute an existential risk,” they write. “There is still time to make a substantial shift in their fundraising strategy. Israeli society today is sufficiently affluent to make far more meaningful contributions to environmental organizations and is probably willing to do so.”

Israelis are far from shy about contributing to charities and regularly contribute to groups like anti-cancer funds, but green groups need to create a more structured framework for approaching potential donors and increasing their memberships, Tal told The Jerusalem Post on Monday afternoon.

“I think environmental organizations have become a little complacent about engaging Israeli public and asking them for support,” he said, noting that the Society for the Protection of Nature does, however, do a particularly good job in this arena.

Another problematic issue that the environmental organizations face as a whole is the lack of professional training among their leaders, according to the report.

“The survey results confirm that there is a dearth of qualified, high level experts working in-house for environmental groups,” the authors write. “Neither the Society for Protection of Nature nor the KKL can boast a Ph.D. level ecologist working in their organization.”

This deficiency could be mended not only by increasing funds to attract higher-paid professionals, but also by “integrating the activities of the universities,” something that has already begun, for example, in symposia held by the different NGOs at Tel Aviv University’s Porter School for Environmental Studies, the study says.

Among the biggest environmental issues that the groups currently must tackle include groundwater contamination, a disappearing Dead Sea, heightened cancer clusters due to air pollution, Eilat’s vanishing coral reef, poor conditions in Arab-Israeli and haredi communities, degradation of open space, greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in endocrine disruptors that have caused a drop in sperm count and early onset of female puberty, according to the study. Perhaps most significant is the country’s issue of overpopulation, which has grown from one million people in 1950 to 7.7 million people in 2011, the report says.

“A foundation initiative to change Israel society’s attitude towards large families/pro-natal policies along with the culture of consumption would for the first time address the key drivers behind Israel’s primary environmental problems,” the authors suggest.

A bit more encouraging, however, is the success of some of Israel’s green NGOs in achieving social justice, as more and more of the groups take on specialty roles. 

“The ability of a few organizations to maintain working relationships with environmentalists and NGOs in Arab countries is remarkable, given the generally toxic political atmosphere prevailing between Israel and its neighbors during the past decade,” the authors say, citing Friends of the Earth Middle East as a positive example for having created the Jordan River “Peace Park.”

But much more work needs to be done in terms of achieving environmental equity, particularly along the country’s periphery, the writers note. Calling the environmental justice situation here “severe,” some 86% of the survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the idea that “disenfranchised populations suffer from environmental hazards more than established populations do.”

While the report may have highlighted some sensitive issues for Israel’s green groups, Tal told the Post that he overall expected his study to be received positively on Tuesday.

“It might make them a little uncomfortable, but I think they recognize that we have come a long way and that if we want to sustain this level of efficiency we’re going to have to think of better strategies to pull in our funding,” he said.

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