The business of philanthropy

Jeff Farber, Koret Foundation CEO, believes it’s time Jewish philanthropy stopped operating like a charity.

Textile business 311 (photo credit: .)
Textile business 311
(photo credit: .)
According to Jeff Farber, CEO of the multimillion dollar US-based Koret Foundation, the fact that his organization’s investments were only slightly affected by the global economic crisis of recent years was not mere coincidence but smart thinking and plain old business sense.
“Obviously we were impacted slightly by the economic crisis and now we have to look much more carefully where we invest our money, but none of our projects were seriously affected,” says Farber, who turns 60 next month. 
“Philanthropy needs to be run like a business, it’s not just about feeling good that you have just given half a million dollars to a worthy cause, but rather about figuring out how best to leverage the dollars that you have and use them to make a real impact.
“One of the problems is that while many foundations do a lot of good things, they are too spread out on many different issues and not focused on one particular area,” continues Farber, who, before joining Koret five years ago, spent almost 25 years holding various executive positions at the Bank of America.
“Philanthropy is like a business deal; it takes careful consideration and is not about just searching out the next worthy project. There are so many good ideas out there, but no foundation can be everything to everyone – it can try but it just won’t work. Foundations need to be focused on specific areas in order to feel the results.”
For Koret, Farber says, its field of expertise is not “handing out the dollars” but “teaching the man to fish rather than just giving him a fish.”
“Our president and founder Tad Taube always thought it was better to teach a man to do something rather than to just hand him the money,” he says, adding that while the foundation has a number of small projects here, such as the Rehovot-based Koret School of Veterinary Medicine (part of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), its main focus is the Koret Israel Economic Development Fund (KIEDF) that provides millions of dollars in financial support and loans to small and medium-size businesses in outlying areas and disadvantaged communities. 

In fact, says Farber proudly, Koret’s Israel arm has just launched a$150 million initiative together with the US government’s OverseasPrivate Investment Corporation (OPIC) and Bank Leumi that will provideloans to roughly 7,000 businesses in the Negev and the Gilboa region,both to Arabs and Jews, over the next seven years.
“It’s basically for those from disadvantaged populations who do notusually qualify for bank loans,” he explains, emphasizing that it wasOPIC, a branch of the US government for private investment in foreignmarkets, that approached KIEDF after recognizing its success in similarprojects here over the past 15 years.
“This is the first time that anything like this has been tried.Bringing together such partners will really help to improve theeconomy. It is based on other similar initiatives that the KoretFoundation has been running in Israel since 1994,” says Farber, addingthat since then $225m. has been invested by the foundation in some8,500 small and medium-sized businesses, which in turn have given jobsto close to 45,000 people.
ACCORDING to Farber, the 30-year-old foundation is valued at roughly$450m., with about half being invested in various projects supportingboth Jewish and non-Jewish projects in the San Francisco Bay Area whereit was first founded, as well as several in Israel.
Koret’s philanthropic endeavors are based on assets accrued by the nowdeceased Joseph and Stephanie Koret, owners of the Koret of Californiasportswear for ladies line and from current president Tad Taube’sreal-estate portfolio.
Taube, a close family friend of the Korets, encouraged Joseph to startthe foundation in 1979 following Stephanie Koret’s death. The couplehad no children, so Taube convinced Koret to activate a philanthropicfoundation to benefit Bay Area communities and Israel.
The foundation’s charter dictates that 50 percent of its $25m. donationpackage goes to local projects in California and 50% to Jewish andIsrael projects.
“We are proud that we support both Jewish and civic community causes inthe Bay Area,” explains Farber. “So many foundations focus just onJewish causes, but we are not just a Jewish foundation, we believe ingiving back to the community that we came from.
“The money that Joe Koret made to start this foundation was made in theBay Area. Giving back is all about recognizing where you came from andwhat is important to you. The Koret Foundation money came from the BayArea and now it is giving back to art museums, the local symphonyorchestra and to education.”
Farber, who chaired AIPAC in Northern California for the past twoyears, adds that while Jewish causes are obviously important, “it’salso important not to forget where you came from.
“We are proud that we help both communities and besides, when we giveto non-Jewish causes in the Bay Area, it ultimately helps Jewish peopletoo.”
However, he is aware of the criticism that some might have for a Jewishfoundation so intent on giving to non-Jewish causes both outside andinside of Israel.
“There will always be those who disagree with what we do,” he says.“However, we believe that improving the lives of non-Jews in Israelwill ultimately make Israel a better place for everyone to live.
“I know that some will say it’s not right. But I am saying that we haveto think about what I can do as a person and representative of afoundation to make Israel or the Jewish people a better place. At theend of the day, I just want people to say that I tried to do the rightthing.”