Partners in Philanthropy

Improving Israeli society is starting to move from the public sector to the private.

Today in Washington, as head of the Israeli delegation to the biggest annual gathering of American Jewish leaders, businessman Ronny Douek will tell the General Assembly that a new brand of philanthropy has emerged in Israel. He will describe how Israeli businesses are becoming actively involved in solving Israel's social ills.

Douek believes the trend complements a movement among American Jews that has started to donate to Israeli causes via local organizations - rather than through the national United Jewish Communities - and is demanding greater accountability for the funds and a more direct connection to the projects.

Douek's speech will tell of two changes in fundraising that are taking place in Israel. First, a group of private Israelis, not just Diaspora Jews, is contributing time and money to resolving Israel's social problems. Second, responsibility for improving Israeli society is starting to move from the public sector to the private sector, into the hands of large and small businesses - a transformation that already occurred in the U.S. and Europe decades ago.

While various industries in Israel have been involved in philanthropic ventures for years, few businesses have obligated themselves to tackling specific social problems in their local communities, a method that has proved more effective and long-lasting, according to Douek. Correspondingly, more businesses are beginning to understand that the health of society is critical for business.

Douek and the other 20-odd businessmen and women in the Israeli delegation have either established non-profit organizations aimed at solving social problems or have obligated their companies to various social projects and will be on the hunt for American partners this week.

From Herzliya to Beit She'an

Douek, for one, is a multimillionaire in his early 40s from Herzliya Pituah who runs a shipbuilding and port management business. He has invested several hundred thousand dollars of his own money into projects aimed at helping the Israeli underclass. Among his projects are an anti-drug program called Alternative and a project to give aid to Russian and Ethiopian immigrants living in temporary housing. His Zionism 2000 project, now in its sixth year, has become an umbrella organization for some of those earlier projects, but its newest and most revolutionary agenda is a program called Aleh, which matches businesses with social projects in their home cities.

The ideology behind Zionism 2000 - Zionism as a civic movement for social responsibility - is what Douek plans to pitch today at the GA. "We want to revive the spirit of commitment of the individual to the community," he says, adding that it was this spirit that characterized Israel's early days but that has gradually disappeared.

Where does American Jewry fit in? Douek thinks the best way to link U.S. funds with his projects is through Partnership 2000, which matches U.S. Jewish communities with Israeli cities mainly to inject American funds into projects in corresponding Israeli cities. But Partnership 2000 isn't as effective as it could be, says Douek.

The Israeli side of the equation could supply the on-the-ground familiarity with the various cities and businesses and help recruit a cadre of local volunteers - which will make the U.S. funds more effective.

"It is important for American Jews to see there are Israeli businesses willing to create change," says Douek. "It will give Americans more confidence in how their money is being spent."

About 120 companies are engaged in social projects through the Aleh program. Aleh's biggest success has been in Beit She'an, where businesses are involved in recycling initiatives, are sponsoring computer training classes for young people and developing sports programs, all with the ultimate goal of decreasing unemployment in the city and improving the general quality of life. The Jewish federation of Cleveland - Beit She'an's Partnership 2000 sister city - supplies most of the funds and Aleh makes them effective. Douek hopes to copy the Beit She'an model in other cities.

Incorporating social action

Certainly, Douek didn't invent the business-to-community trend. Other organizations trying to link businesses and social projects have also sprung up in recent years, including Ma'ala (Business for Social Responsibility in Israel) and Alma (Business for the Arts).

Other Israeli delegates have established similar business-to-community projects, and some of them are involved with Zionism 2000 projects.

In 1997, Moshe Theumim, chairman of the public relations and advertising firms Gitam/BBDO and Gitam Porter Novelli, founded Hapoel "Keter" Tel Aviv, a soccer club for disadvantaged youth that also offers assistance with school work and a counselor support system. Gitam/BBDO was the first private business in Israel to begin contributing philanthropically with its production of pro bono advertisements to raise public awareness on a range of social issues.

Ofra Strauss-Lahat, who chairs the Strauss-Elite Group board, started the "Adopt a Soldier" Foundation, in 1998. Among other things, the foundation grants university scholarships to combat soldiers after completion of their duty. Douek notes that, as Strauss is the biggest employer in Upper Nazareth, the Detroit community's sister area, matching up the two could generate new and more effective social projects by involving Strauss employees.

Similarly, Avigdor Willenz, executive vice president and director of Galileo Technology Ltd., established a committee within Galileo that donates one percent of company profits to various social projects and he also set up a company fund aimed at reducing social gaps. Baltimore dollars could be better used, suggests Douek, by cooperating with Galileo, whose operations are in the Galilee region, Baltimore's sister region.

Like many of these projects, Douek started Zionism 2000 in the wake of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin - three days after it, in fact. Douek talks of the murder as a "red light" to society. "We have an internal research process to do as Jews, and the first step in that is for individuals to take personal responsibility for what's happening in their communities," he says.

Zionism 2000 has since grown to several thousand volunteers, and Douek recently purchased a plot of land in Ra'anana for a Zionism 2000 center.