Israel has over 26,000 non-profits devoted to helping the underprivileged. What these organizations need now is state support.

The Purim mitzvah of sending mishlo’ah manot (Hebrew for ‘gifts of food’) may be a Jewish child’s first experience of giving, an act that may (but may not) open the giver’s young heart to the plight of the less fortunate. A bar/bat mitzvah hessed (charity) project is another way to open young eyes to needy causes. Children’s awareness of the duty to give and help other people clearly depends on the approach of their parents and teachers.

When the Israeli child reaches high school, a stint of volunteering becomes part of the curriculum and thus becomes a compulsory chore which often has little added value for either the giver or the receiver. However, when 12th graders face the end of their school career, some consider the option of undertaking a year of community work.

“Should I delay my army service and do a year of voluntary service?” asks a girl on a youth chat forum (in Hebrew) on the Internet. “I discovered that I can volunteer at an immigration center, a dog training center, a youth village, a birding center, a boarding school, a youth movement, or in a center that runs activities in nature, and I found lots of other options, too,” she writes.

Israeli youth movements, such as the Scouts, Bnei Akiva and many more, reach out to and encourage high school youth to spend a year volunteering for worthy causes before enlisting in the army.

Another contributor to the chat forum addresses the question of why it is necessary to help others. She believes that some immigrants have difficulty fitting into society and therefore young people should help them through the established youth movements. “We, in the youth movements are the salt of the earth,” writes the teenager. “We are the people who can bring about change. In my opinion, whatever you choose to do, try to think how you can help the most, give, and improve our country.”

Each year, more school leavers in Israel volunteer through a structured framework, such as a youth movement or another non-profit organization, in the hope of bringing about social change.

The volunteering experience may strengthen their feeling of social responsibility and they may become the social entrepreneurs of the future. Alternatively, because it is difficult to have an impact on society, they may well give up. Volunteers need preparation, guidance and support from those with experience in the field so that they can truly make a difference.

The impact of social entrepreneurs

Is it really possible to improve society? Many of Israel’s brightest and most passionate social entrepreneurs believe that they have found a way that can indeed influence change in a specific field, such as feeding the hungry, helping immigrants to find their place in society, or helping youth at risk to find their way back into society, but they need time and money to do this.

The private sector provides role models for successful innovation: Social entrepreneurs develop business plans, create start-up funds, manage budgets, develop professionalism and excellence, market their programs for social change and also evaluate success. The private sector also provides advisors, board members and volunteers. Programs for social change depend on contributions from the private sector, but also sometimes from the public (government) sector as well.

Social entrepreneurs work mostly in the third sector – the non-profit or social sector – by implementing just and creative solutions and pressuring the public and the corporate sectors to act for the good of society.

In Israel, this sector includes more than 26,000 non-profit organizations. It is ostensibly an autonomous economic bloc that does not belong to the private sector or to the public sector, but nevertheless it depends heavily on both for grants, donations and tax breaks. Round table discussions among the government, the corporate chiefs and the third sector promote cooperation, especially on financial issues.

Israel’s government has a vested interest in the survival of non-profit organizations that provide important services, especially for those people with special needs, and therefore supports the third sector to the tune of well over a billion shekels per year.

And yet, if the government becomes the main funder of non-profit organizations, this third sector will no longer constitute an independent entity and it will lose its current role as an engine for change and diversity. Non-profits are already heavily burdened by governmental regulation, bureaucracy and surveillance, to avoid any potential abuse of charitable funding.

Social entrepreneurs who have their own source of wealth have more freedom and potential to improve society by engaging in human rights issues, teenage alcoholism, peace, the environment or whatever they choose, than do those who have to compete with thousands of other non-profits for limited funds to implement a creative solution and prove its effectiveness.

Those who don’t have their own fortune have to hunt for financial backing for their programs. For this reason, in recent years some non-profits have set up their own income-generating businesses in the hope of generating funds that can sustain their program of social change, with no strings attached.

Effi Toledano of Zionut 2000 has helped in the setting up and running of 42 third sector social businesses, giving people with special needs valuable work experience. He admits, though, that most of these businesses are unable to generate sufficient income to sustain the non-profit organization’s effort for social change.

The new “fourth sector” in Israeli society

Now a fourth sector is sprouting in Israel, in the form of “for-benefit” corporations with a social mission. This is venture philanthropy, where stakeholders expect an interest on their financial investment in the social enterprise. However, in my opinion, although every citizen should be involved and help out, it is the government’s responsibility and not that of the private, non-profit, or for-benefit sectors to improve society.

The Declaration of the state’s establishment spelled out the government’s responsibility to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants… ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex… guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture… [and] safeguard the Holy Places of all religions,” as agreed on May 14, 1948.

The Welfare Ministry is right to fund the third sector, if the third sector can indeed improve society for the government. That is the big question. The business sector can and should help, too, but ultimately the state has to keep the engine running toward equality of social, political, educational, and religious rights for all citizens.

Michele Klein has a doctorate in adolescent psychology and volunteers for several projects for youth at risk in Israel’s third sector, including Wing of Love and Bikes for All.