Survival of the fittest

Even in good times, the 3rd sector must always battle for its piece of the charity pie. But with the depreciated US dollar, several smaller NGOs face closing doors.

ladies (photo credit: Bloomberg)
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
When Helena finally managed to break free from the human trafficking ring that had forced her to work as a prostitute for nearly 10 years, she never believed that she would be able to get her life back on track again, especially here. "I was a woman in a strange country and did not know anyone," admits Helena. "When the Interior Ministry realized that I'd been a victim of trafficking, they tried to help me but there was only so much they could do." Instead, they put her in touch with a Haifa feminist center trained to help female victims attempting to break free of the sex industry. Isha L'Isha Haifa Feminist Center rushed to provide Helena, who had been in a serious traffic accident that had left one of her arms severely paralyzed, with the initial assistance to get her back on her feet. "They not only gave me monetary help but also emotional support," says Helena. "Sometimes women like me just need help in those first stages, such as a bit of money to get us going or maybe even just access to a telephone. "Probably the most significant help is that we know there is someone out there who cares about us and what happens to us. I don't think I would have had the confidence to carry on if the volunteers had not shown up." While Helena has been free of the chains that kept her bound in slavery for more than two years, the organization is still providing her with the assistance to fight the Interior Ministry, which wants to deport her back to Russia, where she could fall victim to the trafficking cycle again. "Trafficking in Israel has been greatly reduced in the past few years," observes Helena. "It is definitely partly down to the work they do." However, Rita Chaikin, who works part-time as Isha L'Isha's coordinator in the fight against trafficking in women, is nervous that the good work the organization does on both a micro level, helping individual women, and macro level, lobbying the government to take an interest in the issue, could come to an abrupt end due to cutbacks in funding and a growing recession. "We have already had to scale back on some of our activities," says Chaikin, who was presented with the Vital Voices Global Partnership's Leadership Award by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Washington in 2006 and who contributes on a regular basis to the US State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons report. "We have already had to limit our legal aid service and postpone some of our new programs until next year when we will be able to see if the funding has come in." Chaikin's co-worker, research and development coordinator Hulud Hamis blames the organization's economic concerns on the weakening dollar and growing global recession and, she says, Isha L'Isha, which now has only four part-time employees, is not the only small, grass-roots non-profit that is feeling the economic pressure. "I know that many non-government organizations are struggling to finish the year," says Hamis, explaining that for Isha L'Isha the big blow came last month when one of its international sponsors said it could not afford to make the final payment for 2008. "The economic situation is hurting everyone. But for the small NGOs, where overheads are minimal, any budget cuts can have serious repercussions. It means that either we have to let go of our staff or cut back on our activities, some of which are really life-saving." Two of Isha L'Isha's staff members were already let go. ACCORDING TO the Israel Civic Leadership Association, which acts as an umbrella for local non-profit organizations, there are close to 30,000 registered charities here, although only about 10,000 are active. While a charity could range in size from a large university foundation down to a small grass-roots feminist outfit such as Isha L'Isha, Yaron Sokolov, the association's director, says many of local NGOs are really "feeling the economic pinch." "The bigger organizations are struggling too," he observes, acknowledging that in the past few months large charities such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel have been forced to let go of some staff members. "But their situation is nowhere near as critical as medium or smaller organizations." Although he has not yet heard of any organization actually closing, Sokolov says that the feeling out in the field is that times are "really, really tough" and many NGOs are at a point where they must chose between staff and developing new programs. Even in good times, the third sector is always about "survival of the fittest," he notes, but with the dollar worth less today against the shekel and the global rise in gas, electricity and food staple prices, many charities are finding it more difficult than ever before. Caryn Green, director of Crossroads, which assists hundreds of English-speaking teens struggling with the cultural challenges of life in Israel, states that despite any financial difficulties, she will not let any of her 10-member staff stop their invaluable work. "I refuse to let go of any staff," she says. "I will just fund-raise harder for next year and make sure we have more money coming in." While Green admits Crossroads is perhaps more secure in its funding than some other NGOs, she says that her time spent ensuring that she has enough funds to cover her budget is valuable time she could be spending out on the streets backing up her staff and volunteers or developing new programs to address the needs of her clients. "This is an unforgiving time for us and all non-profits," notes the social worker. "We are lucky that none of our donors have pulled out, but the amounts that we are receiving from the US are much smaller than we had planned. We are just lucky that we have had a few years to position ourselves. If this had happened two years ago, before I was really organized, then I am sure we would be closing our doors by now." GREEN'S POINT is brought up again by philanthropic representative Arnie Draiman. "The fall in the dollar and the global recession are certainly factors in making life so difficult for these charities," says Draiman, who worked in the non-profit sector for many years researching and connecting international philanthropists and foundations with local non-profits. "However, I am not sure if anyone is closing down their operations solely because of this. The dollar has been getting weaker for at least the last two years, and the smarter charities managed to accommodate this accordingly. "Any charity that only has one donor or a small pool of resources is likely to suffer at this time." "Anyone who is relying on funds from abroad is most likely suffering at this time," agrees Prof. Binyamin Gidron of the Israel Center for Third Sector Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He says that it is now time for charities to seriously start thinking of cultivating the local philanthropic market and improving fund-raising channels here. "For many years people did not think it was possible to tap into the local fund-raising market," says Gidron. "But the challenge of most charities is to continually find fresh sources of funding. With dollar so weak and less money from abroad, now is a good time to do so." One area that Gidron points to is improving the relationship between the government and third sector, especially because the latter is increasingly outsourcing its work in the field to private initiatives. "The government has to find a way to support these organizations because they provide an important role in society and it has to ensure that they receive enough support," he says. "Those who get government support are much more likely to survive any recession." FOR MICHAL Dagan, director of the Mahut Feminist Center in Haifa, which provides single mothers and other women experiencing extreme poverty with the tools to improve their employment status, the growing recession plays heavily on her mind. "I am constantly worrying about what might happen to, for example, a woman in her 40s who loses her job but has to find a way to continue supporting her family. Who will help her? That is our role, but if we are not around, then what?" she asks. While not ready to go out of business just yet, Dagan says that the economic situation within Mahut has already led to her firing two employees which was "very difficult because these are exactly the people the organization is trying to help find work." "If the JDC fires a quarter of its employees it will, of course, hurt its operations, but just think what will happen to a smaller organization with only eight workers which has to let go of the same percentage. It's scary," emphasizes Dagan. "The smaller, grassroots charities have very low overheads and the cutbacks are being felt very strongly." Aside from hurting the charities' activities and their employees, Dagan highlights that those who will suffer the most are the weaker segments of the population. "The situation is not simple," she says. "We are seeing more and more poor people and working poor than ever before, and I don't see the government stepping in to help out." "The government has to take responsibility for some of these social issues," says Isha L'Isha's Chaikin, who is continually lobbying parliamentarians to help in the fight against human trafficking. "In the past we have relied on outside donors to help sort out these problems but now these funds are dwindling and we still have so much work left to do. Eventually, the government will have no choice but to step in and help out." EARLIER THIS year, the Prime Minister's Office set up a department to coordinate activities between the government and the third sector. Its function is to allow NGOs a voice in creating social policies but not to bail out organizations on the verge of financial ruin, says Israel Civic Leadership Association's Sokolov. "The government can't give outright financial support to NGOs which are facing economic problems and it can't control the falling dollar," he points out. But he notes there are certain steps the government can take to stop the industry from completely collapsing, including reducing income tax on non-profit sector salaries and canceling arnona (city taxes) for their offices. "Some steps have already been taken in this direction and the issue is up for discussion soon in the Knesset Finance Committee." Asked whether he believed that cutbacks in the non-profit sector would leave a large hole in the basic services, Sokolov says that while a recession in the non-profit sector will hurt social welfare programs, "there will never be a vacuum." "These grassroots organizations obviously need resources for their activities, but many of them rely on manpower and have followings of committed volunteers that will allow them to continue even with the smallest of budgets."