Testimonial: The Institute for Law and Philanthropy: A Founder’s Story

Testimonial: The Institute for Law and Philanthropy: A Founder’s Story

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Impact, that’s what it’s all about

What transforms a donor into a philanthropist, into a social investor? For me, it’s all about creating change, fixing things, and having an impact. Other motives such as moral obligation, guilt feelings and even the pure joy of giving are secondary.

I reached this conclusion only in the past few years. At the beginning of my philanthropic journey, some fifteen years ago, as I was taking my first steps in the field, I enjoyed the mere giving, and of course the collaboration with my late father who founded our family foundation, The Zvi and Ofra Meitar Family Fund. Yes, I am a second-generation social philanthropist.

New perspectives, new perceptions

As a lawyer, I applied a business approach to our giving from the very start. This included an in-depth review of the project, the leading team, the budget and the schedule. I also requested, and usually received, periodic reports. Later on, we already considered ourselves partners in all the projects that we supported.  We asked to be part of major and strategic decisions, but didn’t intervene in the routine ones out of appreciation and respect for the professional teams.

I was very pleased with my work at the fund, and with the results, yet I felt something was missing. Every shekel we gave, seemed to be just another shekel well invested, and though it did have an effect on the lives of the recipients, I felt that it had limited impact. But I will say that we had considerable successes: The scholarship student from the Ethiopian community who was accepted to the Fulbright Master’s Degree program; Musrara, the Nagar School of Art and Society, where our scholarships for students from low socio-economic backgrounds helped them fulfill their dreams to become artists, and helped the school diversify its student body, enabling students and alumni to reach outstanding achievements; the Meitar Opera Studio, responsible for training music academy graduates for professional opera singing. The studio became a hothouse for outstanding professional opera singers, with many of its 80 graduates performing in opera houses worldwide.  And last but not least, the Zvi Meitar Center for Advanced Legal Studies at Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) Buchmann faculty of law, which is a beacon for leading law faculties around the world. Many alumni hold major positions serving as judges, law professors and regulators who have serious impact on Israeli society. I must say that in retrospect, the impact of the last two contributions was far from limited. This realization encouraged me to focus on contributions that made a wide and deep impact through the support of infrastructures. But I am getting ahead of myself.

It’s not all rosy, or, what about the Israelis?

While I was satisfied in light of our accomplishments, I felt a growing frustration. A frustration at the numerous unanswered needs and issues in Israeli society in a reality where the gaps between rich and poor, between the center and the periphery are constantly growing. A frustration seeing that only a small fraction of Israelis perceives giving as a way of life, despite the growing number of people with significant financial capacity in Israel, the “Startup Nation.”

From charity to philanthropy and from philanthropy to social investment 

About a decade ago, the Jewish Funders Network, JFN, opened an Israeli branch. True to its name, JFN is a network of donors and philanthropists who share their experience and exchange information in order to learn from each other and help members improve results and increase the return on their donations. I felt that the JFN would provide me the opportunity to learn from experienced philanthropists, and I decided to join. I met families and people who were both similar to us, yet different, who all shared the same approach to their philanthropic giving which was long term, methodical and goal-oriented, the goal being change. The very same feature I mentioned earlier.

JFN is where I learned and developed strategic, goal-oriented philanthropic thinking. The ancient Jewish tradition of giving charity as an act of Tzedakah (charity) and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), had developed with time into systematic and methodical social investment. During that time, I also started to understand the importance of investing in infrastructures. At the annual international conferences, I became familiar with Dan Pallotta who advocates for investing in non-profit operating expenses (as opposed to the common practice of designating contributions to support projects and activities). This is of utmost importance in order to strengthen and maintain the stability of not-for-profit organizations, and to make them appealing to high quality managers and employees.

It’s all about the people

JFN is where I met my friend Edna Fast, formerly a lawyer, and forever an entrepreneur at heart, and a longtime social investor. During one of our conversations on what prevents Israelis from giving, Edna suggested that we try to establish a chair for philanthropy as part of the Zvi Meitar Center. My jaw literally dropped at the sound of this suggestion! I couldn’t believe that it took somebody else to do the simple math, connect the dots for me, and see the larger picture so clearly.  The faculty of law at Tel Aviv University had been my home for many years. Not only because that is where I studied law and met my husband, but also because of my role as a board member at the Zvi Meitar Center which made me significantly involved in a very meaningful way.  In Edna I found the ideal partner. We both had a legal background and experience as donors, and equally important was the fact that we both knew how to put our egos aside and act vigorously for the cause. This cannot be taken for granted. As a donor, you are pretty lonely in the battle.

She is only a donor

An observer might have a hard time understanding the complexity of it all.
“What’s the problem? If you want to donate, then donate.” I’ve heard this comment in many variations time and time again. Significant giving means raising numerous questions, and spending a great deal of time accompanying the grantees. You are involved, but not really. Even when you are a board member, you will forever be an outsider. This means that your ability to drive people in the organization to take action depends on the donor’s interpersonal skills and the senior staff’s degree of openness. On top of that, there is often the apprehension of trusting other donors, and reservations as to their ability to work in sync with each other and reach agreement. I experienced all of the above in the process of founding the Institute.

Right after our meeting I called Prof. Ron Harris, dean of the faculty of law at Tel Aviv University at the time, and presented the need to establish an institute for philanthropic research. Prof. Harris, whom I had known well due to the many board meeting of the Zvi Meitar Center, listened to me politely. Yet I can’t say that he sounded very enthusiastic. However, he did promise to look into the idea. After one, then two months without hearing back, I reached out, and understood that the only way to move this idea forward was by having a faculty member champion the center and take it on. This type of decision must be based on the principle of academic freedom. Prof. Harris connected Edna and me to Adv. Galia Feit, who at the time was the deputy director of the legal clinics. She loved the idea. Many meetings later, and with Galia’s help, we put together a draft proposal, and Edna and I were invited to speak to the members of the law faculty over a Wednesday Lunch & Learn session. That was the name of informal meetings where faculty met for lunch and presented new preliminary research ideas. We accepted the challenge and arrived in order to convince someone, anyone, to take on our idea: establish an applied research center for law and philanthropy with a practical approach. We really wanted the research to influence the field of philanthropy in Israel and lead to actual results on the ground. The meeting was pleasant enough, but they had a hard time with our idea. Even though philanthropy depends on many legal fields (tax law, corporate law, administrative law), it is underdeveloped in Israel. This is only natural since Israel is a young country founded on socialist values, so there was no need for philanthropy (what I mean is local philanthropy, since it is a well-known fact that donations have been pouring into Israel from world Jewry before, during and after the State of Israel was founded, and still are to date). But ever since the political turnover from the Labor to the Likud party in 1977, things have changed dramatically and civil society organizations in Israel have become an essential and important player alongside the business and public sectors.

To our great delight, we were able to whet the curiosity of Prof. Yoram Margalioth, a senior professor of tax policy, who became the center’s first academic director, with Galia Feit diving right into the deep water to become acting director.

Now of course came the issue of raising the funds to set up and run the center. In addition to Edna and to our family fund, two of my dear and generous friends stepped up to the cause: Irit Rappaport from Geneva, and Marcia Riklis from New York. Both were enthusiastic at the idea of supporting and advancing Israeli philanthropy and agreed to contribute to the founding and operational budgets over a five-year period. The fact that all of the founding donors were women was a double bonus. For the first time on my philanthropic journey, I found myself in a good and successful partnership.

Timing is everything

In 2013 the combination of law and philanthropy had become a well-developed field around the world. In Israel, however, there were no legal academic programs in the field of philanthropy to be found. It is worth mentioning that at the time, there actually were some institutions that researched philanthropy, but unfortunately, they have all either shut down or adjusted their research foci. For example, The Israeli Center for the Study of Philanthropy in Israel at Hebrew University’s School of Social Work and Welfare, which focused on the role of philanthropy and its impact on social policy and civil society in Israel, or Ben Gurion University’s Israeli Center for Third-Sector Research whose goals were to develop knowledge, research and policy analysis that would serve those making policy decisions on third sector and civil society issues in Israel.

The Institute for Law and Philanthropy’s pre-founding conference, which was called: “Philanthropy Now – What’s in It for Me?” was attended by 200 participants including donors, researchers and key players in the Israeli philanthropic field, and I knew we were on the right track. The conference was organized in collaboration with Committed to Give (CTG), the initiative to advance individual giving in Israel chaired by Shuki Ehrlich and Maya Lapid-Edut as director, and JFN Israel headed by Maya Natan.

The day after the conference I received a call from Prof. Harris who told me that he was reprimanded by the university’s development and public affairs division. This is the same division where I now work closely with its vice president, Amos Elad, in my role as co-chair for the university’s global fundraising campaign. They criticized the fact that the university put on such a conference without informing or inviting them to the event. In short, we got the attention of both the philanthropic field in Israel and of the university which was more than happy to be part of an institute that promotes Israeli philanthropy. An important show of intent to the university’s international donors!

And so, after we received the blessing of Prof. Joseph Klafter, the president of Tel Aviv University at the time, and after eighteen months of negotiations, we were set to go.

On May 21, 2014, at my home, we launched the Institute for Law and Philanthropy in an event entitled “Academia at the service of philanthropy to advance Israeli society.” My late father, Zvi Meitar, who was also my mentor, attended the event, naturally, and confessed that he “must eat his hat”, after doubting the necessity of such an institute, let alone actually making it happen.

A dream come true

In the relatively short time of its existence, the Institute for Law and Philanthropy’s contribution to the field of social investment in Israel has been priceless. Upon its inception, the Institute immediately became a significant player in the field. It published in-depth research on a wide range of topics from philanthropy in the ultra-orthodox community to philosophical motives for giving, and collaborated with renowned academic institutions worldwide. The Institute’s team, headed by the dynamic and multi-talented Adv. Galia Feit, writes position papers for governmental authorities; trains the philanthropy referees in government ministries; runs a data lab with information on philanthropic giving in Israel and on Jewish diaspora giving to the country. The Institute leads interdisciplinary academic forums and invests great efforts in advancing discourse on the topic. Additionally, it serves as an important platform for promoting giving in Israel. It is where key players who never before had a chance to meet each other now come together to exchange knowledge and ideas: public foundations, regulators and governmental entities such as the Central Bureau for Statistics (CBS), the Ministry of Finance, and the National Insurance Institute, as well as private foundations and funders. A number of important initiatives were set off by the Institute. For example, the first-ever donor-advised fund in Israel, Keshet, in which the Institute played a major role in developing the idea and the regulatory efforts required for its creation.

And naturally, as a university-based institute, it offers academic courses that examine the role of philanthropic investments in Israeli society, and discuss the complex dilemmas of the civil sector and its relationship with the government.

The Institute’s team has been leading the discourse and advancing the field over and above my expectations.

Prof. Margalioth, upon completion of his term as academic director, was succeeded by Prof. Neta Ziv who comes with a stellar reputation and an abundance of new energies. The current dean of the law Faculty, Prof. Sharon Hannes, sees the Institute as an inseparable part of the faculty’s landscape and recognizes its importance. The circle of funders has grown over the years, and was joined by the Beracha Foundation headed by Dr. Tali Yariv-Mashal, and the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation headed by Mr. Eli Buch, both major foundations in Israel.

Today, the existence of the Institute is taken for granted, and that of course, says it all.

In terms of investment, even if we cannot precisely measure the economic contribution of this type of giving, I have no doubt that it is significant. Each and every shekel that our family fund invested in the Institute has already yielded many more to other causes that are changing the reality of Israeli society by expanding the circles of giving, enriching the discourse and the professional development of the field. It is the Institute’s professional team and key players and the thousands of people who participated in conferences, all exposed to the wealth of information and knowledge, who are creating this change. They are the ones who are making my dream come true.

Impact.  That’s what it’s all about.


                                                            Dafna Meitar-Nechmad, Tel Aviv, May 2020

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