Think global, give local

A new movement to bring American-style philanthropy to Israel is taking hold in Ramat Hasharon.

By ZIV HELLMAN
July 5, 2011 12:32
Takdim philanthropy launch

giving Takdim philanthropy_311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

A FAMOUS SCENE IN THE classic 1964 Israeli comedy film “Sallah Shabati” captures that era’s attitude towards charitable contributions from abroad.

In the scene, the film’s hero, played by Haim Topol, greets an American philanthropist as he comes to view his contribution to the land of Israel. The visiting donor is ceremoniously shown a plaque bearing his name on a hillside on which trees have supposedly been planted thanks to the donor’s largesse.

The proud American millionaire has little time to bask in this glory before he is shoved back into his car. As the car speeds away, the plaque is ripped out of the ground, to be replaced with a plaque bearing the name of the next American millionaire arriving to see what his donations have produced.

In the 19th century, visitors to the Holy Land often remarked on the extent to which the small Jewish Yishuv in the country at the time relied on money from abroad for its sheer survival.

And in the 20th century – and so far in the 21st century, too – the Zionist movement has certainly never shrunk from seeking financial aid from sources overseas. From David Ben-Gurion to Benjamin Netanyahu, no Israeli national or even major municipal leader has been a stranger to fund-raising trips abroad, and many non-profit organizations base their annual budgets mainly on the dollar amounts that they can manage to raise overseas.

There are recent indications, however, that the Israel-Diaspora philanthropic relationship is undergoing a major change. Approximately 62 percent of philanthropic contributions to non-profits in Israel come from abroad, according to studies conducted by the the Hebrew University’s Center for Philanthropy Research, but contributions have been steadily declining for several years. Combined with the weakening dollar value relative to the shekel, many of the non-profits that are dependent on overseas funds have long been complaining that they are being squeezed financially to an unprecedented extent.

Given this situation, a group of activists in Ramat Hasharon, a city bordering Tel Aviv, have decided that the time has come for a radical new idea: getting Israelis to contribute to their own domestic charitable causes instead of relying on foreign donations.

The initiative, called Takdim (precedent) and launched in late May, is consciously modeled on the Jewish Federations in North America and even bills itself as “the first Jewish Federation” in Israel.

“What is groundbreaking is that this is the first community foundation [in Israel] being led by the local donors themselves,” says Arik Rosenblum, CEO of Takdim. “Apolitical, independent lay leaders are learning about their community and its needs. They are choosing which projects have added value and which should be supported. “We deliberately chose the name Takdim because it is a message for ourselves: we want to be cutting edge in direction, and the name is intended to keep us thinking that way,” he explains.

Although only recently founded, Takdim has already identified two main projects that it hopes to be able to support in the near future.

“One project under consideration is the construction of an inclusive playground [including installations for the disabled], which every child, no matter his or her condition, can enjoy,” says Rosenblum. “Parents with disabilities will be able to come to it with their children.

Another goal is to support a pilot innovative educational project in Ramat Hasharon, and to cooperate with another community in supporting a similar educational project there as well. We have proposals talking about technological innovations to the classroom; or of programs teaching teens to be social innovators themselves.”

RAMAT HASHARON IS ONE OF the more prosperous communities in Israel. Considered mainly a farming village until as late as 1960 (and at one point contained a substantial tobacco plantation), it is today a full-fledged, solidly middle-to-high income city of over 40,000 in the Tel Aviv area, classified by the Central Bureau of Statistics at a sterling socioeconomic rank of 9 (out of 10).

“The idea [for Takdim] came out of brainstorming by organizations in Ramat Hasharon,” Rosenblum tells The Report. “We were seeking philanthropic channels for our city. We first thought of establishing a municipality- based foundation, like the cities of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem have. But Ramat Hasharon is a strong community. We realized we need to take responsibility for ourselves.”

Rosenblum, 53, has extensive experience in the philanthropy field. Anative of Los Angeles, he came to Israel with his family at the age of 11, and speaks both English and Hebrew fluently.

After receiving a law degree at Tel Aviv University and practicing law for several years, he spent a year as a Jewish Agency community envoy in Hartford, Connecticut.

When he returned to Israel, he decided to switch to working in fundraising, for which he exhibits a clear passion. He initially worked at Beterem, an organization devoted to child safety, formed by a group of doctors who tired of treating children hurt by silly accidents that could have been prevented, such as easy access to poisons, burns from hot plates, and stairwells without banisters; he is still active in that organization, as a board member. After that, he was deputy head of international relations at the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) for five years, was director of fund-raising at Tel Aviv University, and also fund-raised for Beit Hatfutzot, the Diaspora Museum, which is located on the grounds of Tel Aviv University.

With all those years of experience, Rosenblum is well aware of the differences between Israeli and North American attitudes towards philanthropy. “The Israeli philanthropic world is different from that of any modern Western country,” he says, referring to the extent to which philanthropy is dependent on money coming from overseas. “The amount of donations from abroad is going down all the time, and Israelis have not been stepping up to make up the losses. NGOs are struggling. If this continues, within a decade there will be a deep crisis in philanthropy.

There has to be a grass-roots change in mindset.

People here can give. We can stand on our own feet. We are the peers of the communities abroad, not their dependents.”

Rosenblum stresses that Takdim is deliberately run by lay leadership, including businessmen, who bring an approach that is different from one that government leadership would likely adopt.

“We decided early that we cannot work only through the municipality or the political system,” he explains. “We do have contact with the municipality and the community centers, and we work with them in coordination and synergy, because it is important. Out of 17 board members of Takdim, one is a municipality representative and one a community center representative. But since we have a one-person, one-vote system, they are a minority.”

Gonen Eliasi, spokesman for the Ramat Hasharon municipality, tells The Report in an e-mail statement that the municipality “regards [Takdim] as a very important initiative, and we welcome the creation of the foundation for the partnership it gives us with residents in developing the city.”

CAREFUL STUDIES OF PHILANthropy in Israel have been conducted in recent years by the Center for the Study of Philanthropy. The center provided The Report with detailed figures on the subject, some of which underscore how Israel differs from other countries.

In 2010, total philanthropic giving came to 16 billion shekels ($4.65 billion). Israeli philanthropic giving comprises only 0.74 percent of GDP, as compared with 2.1 percent in the United States. The share of philanthropy in Israel from overseas sources, which stood at 62 percent in 2009, makes the country an anomaly in the extent to which it depends on nondomestic giving.

At the same time, this figure of 62 percent represents a sharp drop from the 71 percent in the previous year (2008), which is a clear reflection of the way in which the financial crisis that began in late 2008 has affected donations to Israel-affiliated charities in North America.

The diminishing giving from abroad, however, is regarded by many as reflecting a longterm trend, stemming from more than the economic downturn.

“Doubts are being expressed as to whether the numbers [of contributions to Israel from abroad] will go back up, even after economic recovery,” says Dan Brown, founder of eJewish Philanthropy, a Jerusalem-based online philanthropy resource. “There is a debate in the United States about giving for overseas projects as opposed to giving to the local community. Sometimes there can be huge fights about this.”

The increasing wealth of Israel is itself reframing the need for Diaspora giving to the country, others note.

“The diminishing marginal impact of Jewish philanthropy in Israel stems from the constant growth of the Israeli economy compared with the stagnation of Jewish philanthropic giving in Israel,” says Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of The Reut Institute, a non-partisan, nonprofit policy group based in Tel Aviv. “Israeli economic growth this year is between 6-12 times the annual Jewish philanthropic giving in Israel. Within a few years, the total of Jewish philanthropic giving in Israel will only amount to half of a percent of Israel’s economy.”

These numbers, says Grinstein, are “a challenge to Jewish philanthropy,” but he adds that “understanding them may generate a sense of urgency that is essential for an overhaul.”

That, he says, would mean a re-evaluation of the balance between world Jewish philanthropy for Israel and giving within Israel itself.

BUT GETTING ISRAELIS TO STEP up and give, whether money or volunteer time, is not easy.

“Approaching Israelis is different from approaching Americans for fund-raising,” says Rosenblum. “Israelis regard the state as a main provider of social welfare and that has been the mindset in this country for many years. The government moved to a more capitalist society about 20 years ago, but Israelis have not fully shifted their mindset in response. They often feel that if they give, they are sending the wrong message to government, as if they are telling the government that it does not need to provide social welfare, that others can handle it.”

The Center for the Study of Philanthropy’s numbers support Rosenblum’s observations.

Individual giving in Israel is registered at only 66.5 percent compared to 70 percent in the US and 86 percent in the Netherlands. When it comes to voluntary participation in charitable causes, the gaps are even starker: there is only 15 percent participation in charitable causes in Israel, compared to nearly 50 percent volunteerism in Britain and Canada and 30 percent in Australia.

Grinstein agrees that a legacy of socialism, in which citizens are cared for by the government “from the cradle to the grave,” has led to low awareness regarding charitable giving among Israelis. He also notes that because they face only low expectations, Israel’s wealthiest have borne little, if any, social cost for not giving generously, in contrast to the situation in other countries. Furthermore, in Israel, the benefit in tax deductions for charitable giving is relatively small.

“Many Israelis don’t know how to give,” says Grinstein. “Philanthropy in America is a serious business, founded on tradition and professionalism.

That knowledge and expertise are lacking in Israel. And there is much less wealth in Israel than in the Diaspora. There are only ten to fifteen Israeli billionaires, some of whom actually live overseas. In Los Angeles alone it is estimated that there are between thirty to forty Jewish billionaires. Who knows how many there are in the other major cities of North America, Australia, Russia, or Europe.”

“The figure of philanthropy comprising only 0.7 percent of GDP is too low [meaning Israelis should be giving more],” says Professor Hillel Schmid, who heads the Center for the Study of Philanthropy. The Report spoke to Schmid by telephone as he was coming out of a meeting with South Korean colleagues in Philadelphia. “In Korea, the figure is 1.2 percent,” he says. “That is a significant difference. There is a large potential for increasing philanthropic activity in Israel.”

The Center for the Study of Philanthropy recently conducted a survey of charitable giving in Israel to identify reasons for the relative paucity of giving in the country. The study, authored by Schmid, finds that the lack of professional fund-raising experience, which is then translated into less charitable money collected, is one major reason. The study also points to the negative associations that the public sometimes holds regarding non-profit organizations, due to the involvement of some non-profits in political scandals, and reports of the immense salaries paid out of the donations to the executives at some non-profit organizations, along with vague and unclear goals expressed by the organizations themselves.

Strained relations between government bodies and private donors, who come to support social causes with different mindsets – the private donors frequently approaching philanthropy with a business-like attitude, compared to the more conservative and bureaucratic government approach – have also been a cause for reduced charitable giving in Israel.

“There is a movement towards what is being called ‘new philanthropy,’ in Israel and around the world,” says Brown. “It is being led by people who made their money not by inheritance but by being successful in today’s business world, often in high-tech. They like to bring the business principles they use to their philanthropic approach. It is still unclear how that can work when they try to partner with more established philanthropic institutions.”

Schmid agrees that there is some movement in the philanthropy world towards new paradigms. He contrasts the “new philanthropy” or what he prefers to call “engaged philanthropy” with the old-style “romantic philanthropy.” Under engaged philanthropy, donors do not simply give money to large charitable non-profits, trusting the non-profits to make the best judgment as to where the money should go; they want to choose the specific projects that their donations are supporting, and want to be engaged in moving those projects forward.

“We can see this in attitudes expressed by the NY Federation, the largest in the United States,” Schmid tells The Report. “They are less inclined to give money to the Jewish Agency [as in the past]; they want to choose specific projects and communities in Israel to which they direct their donations,” he says.

IN ADDITION TO THEIR LACK OF experience in fund-raising, Israelis also need training in philanthropic allocation, according to Rosenblum. “We need to provide extensive training in how to choose a project to support out of the many that need support,” he explains. “One of the most important elements of our approach is that we as a federation learn what the community’s needs are and we are involved in following the projects.

We are working with federation leaders in the United States to teach us how a major organization plans allocations, bringing experienced federation leadership to Israel to give us instruction. We are reaching out to communities in North America to mentor us.”

Another idea that Takdim is taking from the North American federations is that of “broad responsibility,” a new catchphrase in the philanthropic world.“About 70 percent of our [philanthropic] activities will be in our city,” Rosenblum asserts, “but the rest will be directed more broadly in Israel and perhaps even in places outside Israel.”

Grinstein advocates a general refashioning of the philanthropic relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. He calls for a fuller partnering, in which Diaspora philanthropists will offer to take part in projects by Israeli donors and challenge Israelis to become partners in theirs.

“What is more important: funding efficient projects or building effective capacities and institutions?” asks Grinstein. He answers his own question: “Farsighted Diaspora Jewish philanthropy that seeks to play a central role in Israeli society should shift its focus from the former to the latter.”

Grinstein further recommends that philanthropists embrace “a positive vision that can provide an overarching framework for their actions,” choosing ambitious goals such as raising productivity and income in the lowtech sector, which employs 85 percent of the labor force in Israel. He also calls for developing a new ethos and focus on institution and capacity building.

The leadership at Takdim is still striving to find the best way to adapt philanthropic practices developed in North America to the Israeli setting. “We do not have an annual campaign,” points out Rosenblum. “Israel is not ready for it yet. We also gather donations for specific projects. There is a trend in the United States towards designated giving. We are starting from that point. Our local on-line giving initiatives are geared towards projectspecific donations. Anyone can participate, whether by donating five shekels or five million shekels.’ Rosenblum and his staff are also very carefully documenting the process they are undergoing as they establish Takdim, in order to help other communities in Israel set up similar foundations. “I am sure that other communities are watching us,” says Rosenblum. Our first and most important goal is to encourage mindset change among Israelis as to the need to give as just a part of living in a modern society.

We of course will be happy to see other cities follow our direction. Within a year or so, I expect other communities may try our model.

We are recording everything and will willingly give these materials to other communities.”

“Other communities” may not necessarily mean only Jewish communities in Israel.

“Notice that we do not call Takdim a ‘Jewish foundation,’” Rosenblum points out. “Jewish values certainly guide us, but if a Christian, Muslim, Druze or Circassian community wants to establish a similar initiative, we would love to help them do so.”


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