Israel's shifting culture of philanthropy

What are the secrets to successful fundraising in Israel's shifting philanthropic sands?

Sagi Melamed (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sagi Melamed
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Do Israelis have a culture of giving?
Many fundraisers in Israel would say no - at least, not compared with the kind of philanthropic climate developed by North American Jewish communities.
In fact, when Sagi Melamed first started out as a fundraiser at Tel Chai college several years back, he searched in vain for resources in Hebrew on how to go about the difficult task of raising money in Israel. Not a single Hebrew book could be found, and scant internet resources.
Now, Melamed is the Vice President of External Relations and Development at Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, the founder of MASIG fundraising consulting firm, and the author of the first Hebrew-language book on fundraising; Gius Tromot, or Fundraising: The Practical Israeli guide.
Debuting on November 29 from Matar, the book is a complete guide to fundraising, and sets straight many misconceptions about the field.
For starters, there is a culture of giving in Israel. “Israelis give,” Melamed told The Jerusalem Post, “though perhaps not in as organized or as public a way as Americans. In the US you have chairmen and committees and titles. Not so much in Israel.”
Still, there is a 10% growth yearly in giving among the Israeli wealthy, according to Yecholim Notnim, an organization founded by Israeli philanthropists who aim to promote giving among the wealthy.
“Israel still has a ways to go,” said Melamed. “The total giving of Israelis is less than 1% of the GDP (the US currently stands at  1.7%). So, we’re still not as philanthropic, but we’re definitely narrowing the gap. We have nothing to be ashamed of. Further, a lot of the giving in Israel is being done by simple people who don’t have a lot of extra income and still give. And, most Israeli wealth is new wealth, there are very few Israeli families who have three or four generations of wealth like major families in the US. High-tech is the heart of most of this new wealth. Israelis need to understand that they are very rich, and there’s a lot left over even after all their family is taken care of, and create a culture of giving.”
Another shift is historic. Israel was formed as very socialist, Malamed explained. It has shifted to be more capitalistic with more wealth, but the country used to do much more for its citizens in terms of welfare and education. Today, universities and hospitals can hardly survive without philanthropy.
While that philanthropy used to be sourced easily in American donors, that has changed drastically as well. Melamed recalled how his grandmother’s brother, Pinchas Sapir, one of Israel’s finance ministers and once Chairman of the Jewish Agency, would go to someone’s house and say “holocaust, Zionism, wars, making the desert bloom, Jewish soldiers,” and sit on the couch and not move until they donated for a new factory or hospital for Israel. It was once enough for American Jews to hear these things, to see a picture of a Jewish soldier, and feel moved. They wouldn’t even ask what specifically was going to be done with the money. Now, international donors are much more sophisticated and discerning, requiring far more specificity of requests and significant oversight and documentation of project execution.
Successful fundraising in these changing times, according to Melamed, requires a fundamental re-framing of what it means to be a fundraiser.
“Take James Snyder, the Director of the Israel Museum,” Melamed said. “He’s a tremendous fundraiser, and when I asked him how much of his time he dedicates to fundraising, he said, ‘I spend zero time fundraising. I spend my time getting people excited and building communities.’”
“It’s not about asking people for money,” Melamed insists. “That’s the most common question I get… is being a fundraiser the same as being a schnorrer? which is a Yiddish word for a beggar, for someone who asks for something in a weak or indirect way, it’s always the weak asking the strong.”
“No, healthy fundraising is very different from that,” he said. “You’re offering the opportunity for someone to do good with their financial resources. You’re inviting someone with the means to join you in fulfilling a dream, fulfilling a vision. When I ask for funding, I often say ‘Can I invite you to give, to be a partner, to make a dream come true, to fulfill potential?’ A famous rabbi said, ‘The giver enjoys the gift more than the receiver.’”
“Just ask Steve Hoffman, the president of Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland. He said that giving is fun, that it makes people happy to give, and that’s very true.”
Fundraising gives people a chance to be part of something greater than themselves. Before Sagi entered fundraising, his wife, Betsy, was an accomplished fundraiser at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa. Sagi watched her turn an unknown little institution into a leader in modern orthodox religious training by raising the school’s status and capabilities.
Yet, Melamed said that through his consulting business he would sit with famous community leaders, rabbis, and CEOs, who just couldn’t spit out the words when it came to asking for a gift from a donor, which is why a big element of his new book is about how to feel good about asking.
And even with proper training, fundraising is a difficult profession. “It’s difficult to do it well and a difficult road to take.”
One subject the book covers is the criteria for recruiting a good fundraiser, and the first quality on this list is perseverance. “The ability to fall and get up, fall and get up, again and again,” Melamed said. “You get more no’s than yes’s. There’s a rabbinic saying: ‘When you go to ask for donations, you need two pockets - one for the money and one for disappointments’ and to that, I add: the pocket of disappointments will be heavier. You have to have a sense of sportsmanship about everything.”
Melamed also emphasized the need to be a person of many skills, to have rich interests and know about many subjects, and to be an excellent listener. “When you go and meet with people of power and means, it’s hard to get time with them. They have to be ready to spend time with you and they know you’re going to ask them for money. You have to give them something in return - the pleasure or interest of spending time with you, or no one will agree to see you.”
“Finally,” Melamed said, “You need to be a mensch, to have integrity, to be there for the right reasons. You need to be proud and confident about your mission, about what you’re asking people to support… The Integrity of a fundraiser is the most important asset. Donors trust you to fulfill your promises. Fundraisers become the representative of the donor in the organization.”
In his book, Melamed covers a vast array of stories and examples of fundraising in Israel, interviewing accomplished fundraisers and philanthropists alike, and referencing his years of consulting experience. Some of the pleasure in fundraising, he said, is you get to see some of the very best sides of Israel.
Fundraising: The Practical Israeli Guide will launch on Tuesday, November 29th, at 5:30 PM at Beit Amutot in Tel Aviv (Se’Adya Ga’on 26.)