Urban philanthropy drives Tel Aviv toward better future

The priorities of philanthropists in recent years have shifted from nation-building to meeting the evolving needs of cities and their urban inhabitants.

Children at a kindergarten for asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv. (photo credit: UNITAF)
Children at a kindergarten for asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: UNITAF)
From JNF’s iconic blue “pushke” boxes to multi-million-dollar centers of health and education with donors’ names splashed across the facade, philanthropy has always been an important part of building the State of Israel and its institutions.
Yet, as Israel has become increasingly strong and independent and as cities have progressively become the focal point of the global economy, the priorities of donors have shifted from nation-building to meeting the evolving needs of cities and their urban inhabitants.
Like all growing global cities, Tel Aviv is characterized by its extremes – dominated by the young and the elderly, the poor and the rich.
Faced with the challenges that such a society entails and harnessing the growing appetite for urban philanthropy, the Tel Aviv Foundation is aiming to elevate the quality of life and create a better future for all of the city’s citizens.
“When we speak to our donors, we can see two major trends: firstly, whereas before people put more money into buildings, now we witness a move into donating to programs,” said Tel Aviv Foundation CEO Hila Oren.

Tel Aviv Foundation CEO Hila Oren / UNITAFTel Aviv Foundation CEO Hila Oren / UNITAF

“The second trend is that there is a growing number of Israeli donors. Israelis have more money nowadays and understand that the country is maturing and that we need to donate to ourselves, to promote our own society and community. We can’t wait for North America and Europe to build our country and nation.”
Of course, donors always want their investments to be looked after and used in the most efficient way. By investing through the Tel Aviv municipality rather than a nonprofit organization, Oren says, there is the additional oversight of the city’s mayor and foundation chair Ron Hul-dai.
All donations received by the foundation are designated for specific projects and doubled by Tel Aviv’s dollar-for-dollar funds-matching partnership.
In the four decades that the foundation has been in operation, since its establishment in 1977 by then-mayor Shlomo “Cheech” Lahat, it has raised $550 million for approximately 600 projects of varying sizes to benefit the city’s 450,000 residents. Projects focus on culture, education, environment, innovation and welfare in the city.
“When you think about philanthropy, it’s not about giving money to build schools and having your plaque anymore,” said Oren.
“It’s about getting global resources for projects that are impacting cities, like climate, loneliness, homeless shelters and sports projects, such as the velodrome currently being constructed.”
Last year, over 30 construction projects and operational programs were implemented or advanced in the city. Past and current projects have seen the foundation partner with major international donors including the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropy and the Rockefeller Foundation.
“We’re providing both extra finances and filling in gaps. City and government budgets are always limited,” said Oren.
“For example, the issue of asylum-seekers is a national issue. There’s almost no government money but still the low socioeconomic status population that lives in south Tel Aviv want their community to improve.”
Among the foundation’s efforts targeting children of the city’s asylum-seeker population is a kindergarten renovation project backed by the Shapiro Foundation.
In addition to major projects and landmarks, the Tel Aviv Foundation also has a small social affairs fund to help individuals in need of more modest help – even as seemingly minor as fulfilling the request of placing a city bench outside the home of a bereaved mother.
“The city needs to do the regular work. We need to bring the added value, bringing more money into programs and ensuring that more Israelis and Tel Avivians are engaged with giving back to their city,” Oren said, adding that she believes Tel Aviv’s booming hi-tech ecosystem currently fails to sufficiently re-invest in its own city’s future.
“We call on the hi-tech industry to come and reach out to us, and decide where they want to put their money. It’s time to start giving back, not to the city but to themselves, to the community, to the poor and vulnerable. If you want an ecosystem to thrive, you need to put resources into it.”