In the World of Charity, Israel Is Still Receiving a Lot More Than It Gives Back

'We know there's a global village, but we're not exactly part of it,' says a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

When the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami claimed 300,000 lives, organizations and individuals around the world made donations while volunteers poured into the region. A quarter of U.S. households contributed money, and Israel sent medical teams, experts and members of the Zaka rescue organization.

Billions of dollars were collected around the world to help the victims of the tsunami and other disasters, but Israel's financial contribution was meager. Israelis contributed 10 cents on average to international relief efforts, compared with $20 by the typical Dutchman and $200 by the typical Norwegian.

Israel is a leading recipient of donations from around the world, particularly from Jews in the United States and Europe. It's also among the top 10 countries receiving contributions and grants from U.S. foundations.

But less than 1% of Israelis donate to organizations operating internationally, according to a study by Prof. Hillel Schmid and Hanna Shaul Bar-Nissim of Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Center for the Study of Philanthropy in Israel.

"Giving outside Israel isn't a top priority for the Israeli donor," Schmid and Bar-Nissim write. "Israelis believe in the saying 'charity begins at home.'" But other studies show that Israelis rarely contribute to charities in Israel either, and that nonprofit groups here rely mainly on government subsidies and donations from abroad.

Israel comes in at 0.1%

In 2010, $575 billion was sent around the world for philanthropic purposes, but only $11 million came from Israel. According to figures from the past decade, 48% of charitable funds raised in Belgium were earmarked for international relief, compared with 38% in the Netherlands, 13% in Italy, 9% in Britain, 5% in the United States – and 0.1% in Israel.

Of the hundreds of billions of dollars going to international causes in 2010, $329 billion was donated by individuals, $56 billion by philanthropic and corporate foundations, and $190 billion by foreigners to their countries of origin. This includes money raised by Jewish communities and organizations abroad.

The 2009 budget of Bill Gates' foundation came to $3.8 billion, compared with the $5 billion at the disposal of the World Health Organization. George Soros' foundation gave $1 million to human rights organizations in 2010, and Warren Buffett donated $31 million to the Gates foundation in 2006. Israeli business tycoons don't make it a habit to contribute to international causes, but a few organizations try to make up the difference.

For instance, Brit Olam helps with infrastructure, education, welfare and health care in developing countries. Save a Child's Heart contributes to medical care in Africa. The kibbutz movement's humanitarian foundation sends volunteers to communities in distress. Topaz is an organization of Israeli and Jewish volunteers operating overseas. IsraAid is a coalition of organizations helping countries throughout the world. Israeli organizations like Yad Sarah and Magen David Adom operate abroad as well.

Still, Israeli organizations providing assistance overseas are 79% funded by donations from abroad. Only 6% is contributed by Israeli businesses and households, with the rest coming from the sale of services.

Better government policy needed

The amount sent overseas by Israeli nonprofit groups in 2009 reached just NIS 107,000 – 0.1% of their revenues. In contrast, more than NIS 9.2 billion was received in Israel from donors and foundations abroad. According to a recent study, U.S. donations doubled between the 1990s and 2007, exceeding $2 billion that year before declining during the global economic crisis.

"It seems the Israeli public still isn't ripe for donating internationally. It probably considers itself a beneficiary, not a donor or a volunteer . At this stage we expect to receive from the world more than we give back, but global trends can't be overlooked. In some places giving is also a matter of politics and accompanied by political interests that gain momentum during crises or military operations," Schmid says.

"Israel could boost its legitimacy in the world by being a bit more generous. We see ourselves as global citizens and want to be considered part of the family of nations and enlist the support of countries around the world, but Israel has no apparatus that encourages donating money overseas. It's something that doesn't even occur to the average Israeli. We know there's a global village, but we're not exactly part of it."

Israel is a novelty on the international philanthropic map. It receives plenty in donations, particularly from world Jewry, despite its status as a developed country.

"The lack of government policy for [encouraging] private giving to international causes is one of the main reasons for the phenomenon," says Schmid. "Israel's tax laws don't award tax-exempt status to donations going abroad; this is the main impediment facing companies and businesses. Also, foreign aid provided by the Israeli government is seen by many as a substitute for assistance from private sources."

Israeli companies, which don't give much to local causes either, almost never make donations abroad. A handful do, but these are multinational Israeli companies that contribute in countries where they operate.

Photo by Alon Ron