Like many British Jews, Danni Franks had always made her donations to Israel through the huge Jewish fundraising organizations - the United Jewish Israel Appeal and the Jewish National Fund - but never knew exactly where her money was going or how much was eventually ending up in the hands of those it was meant to help.
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The idea that charity-giving could take other forms first struck her when she moved to Israel seven years ago and met another Anglo immigrant who was running a nonprofit organization in Jerusalem that assists English-speaking teens at risk.
"I asked this woman how many teens she was able to help a year, and she told me 1,000," recalls 39-year-old Franks, a former London-based executive at Sky TV and Disney. "I told her that if I had only known they existed, I would have written her a check as well."
Then Franks asked the director what her annual budget was. "She told me $200,000, and I said to her, 'That's not a whole lot of money. You're lucky you don't have to spend a lot of your time fundraising.'" Franks was shocked when the woman responded that raising that amount of money in Israel was a daily struggle.
"I'm going to help you," Franks told her. "I don't know how, but I'm going to help you."
Thus was born Myisrael, a rather innovative concept in the world of Jewish philanthropy: It's a charity registered in England that allows and encourages donors to choose a specific cause in Israel that appeals to them and guarantees that every cent (or in this case, pence ) they contribute goes directly to the end users - in other words, not to pad executive salaries, expense accounts and other overhead items.
Since it was established four years ago, Myisrael has raised close to 1.5 million pounds (NIS 9.4 million ) from more than 2,500 individual donors for 15 Israeli nonprofits that are handpicked by Franks after an excruciating vetting process. She has several criteria for the projects she chooses: They have to be smallish charities that fall under the radar of most British Jews, they can't be political, and they have to abide by extremely stringent standards of transparency. "If one of my projects tells me they're using the money I raised for one purpose and then I find out it's being used for something else - that's it." she says. "They won't get another cent from me. After all, this is my reputation on the line."
Her projects include Bet Hayeled, which provides housing for children unable to live with their families; the Forgotten People Fund, which provides support and emergency assistance to low-income Ethiopian immigrants; Kenafayim, a theater and art center for adults suffering from mental illness; Maslan, a rape crisis center in the Negev; Dental Volunteers for Israel; and Crossroads, the drop-in center for English-speaking at-risk teens that triggered it all.
Neither is Franks targeting the usual suspects when it comes to donors. "Most charities get 95 percent of their funding from 5 percent of their donors. What we're trying to do here is reach out and build relationships with the other 95 percent - the small donors."
Getting the word out and competing with giants like the UJIA and JNF for the hearts and wallets of Jewish donors in England is no small challenge, so Franks spends a great deal of time shuttling between Tel Aviv, where she raises her preschool-aged son on her own and runs her charity from her apartment bedroom, and London. It's a job that requires traveling around synagogues and encouraging young congregants to adopt her causes as their bar and bat mitzvah fundraising projects, persuading rabbis and Jewish leaders to keep her causes in mind during the annual Yom Kippur appeal, and getting friends and acquaintances to lend a helping hand. This past month, for example, the sister of a friend who works as pastry chef in the Savoy Hotel in London baked cookies for a Myisrael fundraising event.
Franks doesn't see her job as just getting donors to write checks for her projects; she takes an active role in promoting them and helping them find other ways of generating revenues to sustain themselves. Her heimish, hands-on approach can even border on nagging at times.
"We need to get this place painted," she chides Noa Turgeman, the co-executive director of Women's Courtyard, a center for disadvantaged women in Jaffa, during a recent site visit. "How do you expect a girl to make the most of her therapy session in this room if what she has to stare at is chipped paint on the walls?" At Shikum Acher, a rehabilitation center in Petah Tikva for adults recovering from mental illness, she asks to look at the new wood-cutting machine purchased with funds raised by Myisrael.
"We get money from about 50 different foundations," says Michal Topaz, the director of the center. "Many of them we never see or hear from after we get the checks. With Myisrael, though, we really have a relationship. Danni visits constantly. She's really into all the details and very, very attentive to our needs."
Franks is greeted with hugs and kisses when she arrives at Click, a vocational center for the elderly in Hod Hasharon, where needy individuals are provided with an opportunity to earn a bit of money each month by making handicrafts. A recent contribution from Myisrael is now funding the transportation costs for many of these individuals so they can get to the center. "Transportation is obviously not sexy, but it's necessary," says Franks. "Without them having the ability to get here, what good does all the rest of this do?"