The giving imperative

It’s time for Israel’s wealthiest individuals and families to step up to the ‘Giving Pledge’ challenge.

Gates and Buffet 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Gates and Buffet 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In June, US billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet invited America’s wealthiest citizens to join them in committing to give more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes either during their lifetime or following their death.
Entitled, the “Giving Pledge,” the Gates-Buffet initiative is defined both as an effort to help address society’s most pressing problems by encouraging giving among the most capable, and to encourage discussion as to how philanthropy can be more effective and accountable.
Six weeks following the announcement, no fewer than 40 of America’s wealthiest individuals committed themselves to return the majority of their wealth to charitable causes by taking the “Giving Pledge.”
These mega-donors include some of American Jewry’s most respected philanthropists, who give to both local and Israeli institutions.
ISRAELIS HAVE every reason to be proud of the achievements of many of the country’s most prosperous citizens, reflecting the strength and vitality of our private sector.
The appearance of Israelis on the Forbes and Business Week lists is a positive and important message to those contemplating either investing in Israel or coming to live here.
As many local nonprofit associations (amutot) can attest, Israelis do give and are forthcoming with both their money and time. Yet except for a small number of isolated major donations, institutions here have yet to benefit from the kind of mega-gifts from Israelis to which the Gates-Buffet initiative aspires and of which many Israeli donors are indeed capable.
When overseas Jews are today approached on behalf of Israeli institutions, their first, very legitimate question is “Are Israelis donating to your cause?” At a time when middle-class Israelis are traveling abroad in record numbers and living on a standard that now exceeds most of southern Europe, one must make a very good argument for a gift from an overseas Jew who is simultaneously being canvassed for his/her local institutions, which are themselves in urgent need.
Raising funds in overseas Jewish communities remains legitimate and important, as Israel’s growth and success is the historic responsibility of all Jews everywhere. Yet today, no Israeli institution can convincingly raise funds overseas unless it can demonstrate that local Israelis are also giving.
Therefore, the time is now for Israel’s wealthiest individuals and families to step up to the “Giving Pledge” challenge. And as Israel is home to a third sector rich in worthy causes that well serve society, the list of possible recipients is varied and long.
At the same time, local institutions need to invest a greater amount of effort to reach out to Israelis.
The government must also provide more tax incentives for donors, though not as a replacement for government support of public institutions.
Persons of great wealth are remembered much more for their contributions to society than for how they made their money or the empires they built. Most people do not know how Alfred Nobel made his fortune, but all are familiar with the Nobel Prize. This giving imperative is the challenge before Israel’s elite, and the Jewish world anticipates that it is yet another milestone that Israel can meet and excel at.

The writer is associate vice president of the Jerusalem Foundation.