British Philanthropist Shows Israel How to Boost Its Culture of Giving

Dame Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley was a Kindertransport refugee who became one of Britain's best-known philanthropists. Now she's coming to show Israelis that charity begins at home.

For a country which has long been a major beneficiary of Jewish philanthropy from abroad, Israel still has a relatively weak tradition of homegrown giving.

Yes, Israeli philanthropy has expanded rapidly in the past two decades, fueled both by the country's economic boom and the slashing of social services by the government. But nonetheless, in last year's World Giving Index - reportedly the largest survey of charitable giving around the globe - Israel did not even make the top 20 charitable nations. Coming in at 38 out of 153 states, Israel fell behind not only wealthy nations with established traditions of giving like the United States and Britain, but also poor, struggling countries such as Liberia, Guatemala and Laos.

Dame Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley - Office of Dame Stephanie Shirley - 18032012
Office of Dame Stephanie Shirley

And now, the British businesswoman and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley, or "Steve" as she is often known, is coming to town to discuss the matter.

Shirley, 78-years-old and still going strong, is a self-made multimillionaire-turned-philanthropist and advocate for philanthropic behavior. She believes it's as good a time as any for Israel to boost its culture of giving.

"Philanthropy is contagious," she says in a phone interview from her London home. "People who are giving should stand up and be counted. And, in addition, the habit of giving starts very young, and so involvement in the schools is one good way to ensure the next generation thinks of giving automatically."

Moreover, she stresses the need for strategy and focus.

"I differentiate between charity and philanthropy," she says. "When I give to a homeless person money in the street - that is a generous act of charity. But when I start to think about the root reasons for that person being in the street and strategizing about how to fix them - that is philanthropy," she believes.

"It is also important not to be pulled in too many directions by the dreadful needs all over the place," she adds. "One must work strategically, and focus on what interests you."

In the early 1960s, Shirley, who had been a math whizz in school, started a pioneering software company - Freelance Programmers (later known as Xansa ) - in her own dining room. Using the name Steve to work "under the radar" in the male-dominated business world, Shirley soon proved her mettle.

By the time she retired in 1993, the company had a $400 million turnover, and Shirley had reportedly made an estimated personal fortune of some $240m - which she has been busy giving away ever since. In recent years, her Shirley Foundation has spent or allocated around $80 million a year - putting it among Britain's top grant-giving foundations.

Seventy percent of her giving today goes toward funding projects focused on autism, an arena Shirley became involved in on account of her only child, Giles, who was autistic and died aged 35.

From May 2009 until May 2010, Shirley served as the UK's Ambassador for Philanthropy, tasked with encouraging giving within the UK and giving philanthropists a "voice." This was the first appointment of this kind anywhere in the world, but one which she says other countries are now looking into emulating - this despite the fact that Britain itself did not renew the post.

This is Shirley's first ever trip to Israel. Born to Jewish parents in Dortmund, Germany, the year the Nazis came to power, she escaped in 1939 as a child refugee on a Kindertransport train, and was taken in by a Christian couple in the West Midlands. While Shirley was later reunited with her birth parents, who survived the Holocaust, she says little about them today, except to admit that they "never really bonded ... I am very proud of my [birth] parents but I am the child of my foster parents," she says.

Judaism, she adds, was also something she never connected with. "I am a spiritual person, but I have no religion. Not at all," she says.

She also differs with what she describes as the philosophy behind the Jewish tradition of giving. "The Jewish tradition is one in which giving is a duty. Whereas my pledge is to present giving as an act of pleasure. What motivates people is what makes them feel good. This is a very different viewpoint," she explains.

That said, Shirley often brings up her background as a way to explain and define who she is on a larger level.

"As a survivor, I was left with terrible survivor guilt - and I have always felt I needed to make my life worth saving. I always felt I needed to justify my existence," she admits.

"And I think it's important for me to go back to my roots, actually. I never wanted to come to Israel as a tourist. Because I am not one. I am, technically, Jewish. And it's interesting that 70 years later, I am now doing something Jewish. I am looking forward to it. I am thrilled."

Shirley will be speaking at two separate events taking place in Jerusalem this week: the Amuta 21C conference on the future of nonprofits in Israel; and at a meeting of the U.S.-based Jewish Funders Network, the largest network of Jewish philanthropists in the world.