Maala index indicates a revolution in Israel's corporate philosophy

The seemingly impossible entrance of Maala into the heart of Israeli capitalism is exactly what its founder had in mind.

Look at a list of the indexes listed by the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, and you will see the sort of run-of-the-mill groupings found all over the world - from the flagship TA-25 to the technology sector Tel-Tec. But you will also see one index that has nothing to do with a specific sector or industrial weight. Since February 2005, the TASE has been publishing the Maala index, an index that is based on shares of companies which have received the highest rating for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) from the non-profit Maala organization. The seemingly impossible entrance of Maala into the heart of Israeli capitalism is exactly what Talia Aharoni, Maala's founder, had in mind. "I decided I wanted to make that connection between rational thinking that's focused on the bottom line and the need for social awareness," she told The Jerusalem Post. "Companies have to be thinking about the long-term: Who will be their customers, their workers, their products and services and their investors? That has a lot to do with a company's value." Maala is a partner in a global network of CSR organizations, among them Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) - a US business network formed 10 years ago with about 450 corporate members, including Wal-Mart, Microsoft and General Motors. The organization focuses on seven areas in corporate social responsibility: community relations, workplace, environment, human rights, marketplace, business ethics and social accountability. When she founded Maala 10 years ago, Aharoni found that the proper entrance into the Israeli companies was by emphasizing strategic corporate community investment. At that time, that was the direst need in Israeli society. The growing income gap, brought about partially by the boom in the hi-tech sector, was something that companies were well aware of, and wanted to respond to. "I went to companies and showed them that they were giving money but not making any impact," said Aharoni. "They couldn't explain why they were doing what they were doing." Maala taught them to look at their donations as investments, not as contributions. In order to adopt this view, the contributions needed to demonstrate a fiscal and communal return, "an idea which companies found appealing" she added. As awareness and understanding of Maala's goals has grown, the group has widened the scope of issues and topics it represents and works on with it's 110 members. Maala has come up with a system for ranking companies based on the impact they have on their employees, their communities and the environment. The ranking is voluntary, with companies supplying the answers to detailed questionnaires. More important than the ranking itself, says Aharoni, is the advancement of the concept of social responsibility as a primary issue in business leadership. Bank Hapoalim CEO Zvi Ziv, who serves as chairman of the board of Maala, told the Post last week that Maala was working to attract the entire range of Israeli businesses. "I try to explain to [corporations] that the ranking is not a score but a work in progress, a commitment to work on improvement," he said. "We can have companies which pollute in Maala - nobody is telling them they need to close, just to commit to working towards improvement." At Maala's annual conference, held in late October, there was palpable evidence of a new enthusiasm for the CSR concept, as executives and social activists crowded into working groups on issues such as the environment and working conditions while organizers scurried to add more and more chairs. Ziv spoke about the timeliness of the Maala conference, explaining that a lack of corporate ethics was to blame for the current financial crisis now spreading its impact across the globe. "The fact that over 700 business leaders, civic society activists and public officials got together for this conference at this time of crisis shows that it's not just 'corporate whitewash,' but a part of the core mentality about how business is done," said Aharoni. Community leaders have been impressed by the change Maala has been able to bring about. The presence of activists from environmental and social groups at the conference shows that "there is an appreciation of the change Maala and its corporate members actually motivate - they act, not just talk," Aharoni said. Aharoni and the Maala team are also trying to attract investors to the Maala-indexed funds, aiming to achieve the level of SRI (Socially Responsible Investing) in the US and Europe, which, according to Aharoni, accounts for some 10-15% of total assets under management. The Social Investment Forum survey of the SRI market indicates that ethical investment in the US accounts for approximately $2.7 trillion for 2007. Though currently available through three funds - at investment houses Kesem Maala, Pesagot and Prisma, the Maala index has yet to attract anywhere near that level of interest - even on an Israeli scale. "This is one of our challenges, to develop the index and make it more widely known," said Aharoni. She is trying to make the case for Maala investment to American Jewish philanthropic funds and individuals. "How could someone who donates large sums toward promoting the environment then turn around and invest their own money in a company that pollutes?" she asked. "You can make a difference in the way you handle your funds, by investing them in companies which are more transparent, more socially aware." Jessica Steinberg contributed to this report.