Alan Abrams
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Start-up non-profit nation — Judaism without federations

I run a non-profit organization and I'm convinced that there's a better way
Illustrative. (iStock)
Illustrative. (iStock)

Have you been getting a lot of end-of-year solicitations from United States non-profits recently? It’s almost like there’s a mass panic going on, even worse than in the past because of the upcoming changes in the tax laws that are expected to reduce Americans’ charitable donations. Do you ever wonder how much time and money some of the most talented people in these organizations spend on this sort of thing?

It seems like just a waste. And I don’t just mean that totally unbelievably outrageous things like (as revealed in The Forward’s recent story) the head of the Baltimore Jewish federation making $664,489 a year or (can you say, “boy’s club”?) the top 28 earners among Jewish non-profit leaders being men. We’re supposed to be living in an era of decentralization and flattening hierarchies in organizations. We also live in an era where many of the most valuable things we have are actually free or close to it, especially things that come from the nonprofit sector. When was the last time you paid anything to look up  something on Wikipedia? Having Wikipedia is probably worth more to me than all my paid Internet subscriptions, but it is completely free and run as a non-profit. Some small amount of donations does help Wikipedia, but the majority of the work to keep it going — including the writing and editing of its articles, the most reliably accurate information source in the world — is donated. Its business model is that of the open source economy.

“But spiritual care is not like Wikipedia,” I can hear you objecting. “Spiritual care is not virtual, or on a computer. You have to have real people show up to visit people in the hospital.”

Well, it’s true that spiritual care is a people-intensive business, but it nonetheless benefits tremendously from the same transformations that have made Wikipedia possible. Whereas once a spiritual care organization needed all kinds of support staff, like secretaries, to run its everyday operations, now the free off-the-shelf information technology available for everything from word processing to putting out a payroll means that spiritual caregivers themselves can run the whole operation.

We’ve put this kind of zero-overhead spiritual care and spiritual care education to work with truly amazing results at HavLi Program for Spiritual Education and Research and the Schwartz Center for Health and Spirituality  here in Jerusalem in the last few years, and we’ve done it without raising money from the traditional sources, like US Jewish federations, that Israeli nonprofits typically turn to. We (more specifically, I, in my position as HavLi director) ran the first Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) programs held outside the United States, that offered credits recognized and accredited by the States’ leading spiritual care education group, the ACPE. And the Schwartz Center has ran Israeli-accredited CPE units for dozens of Israelis here, more than anybody else. All of this without the funding other programs get from big US federations.

Yet, despite these extraordinary accomplishments, you’ve probably never heard of us. That’s because, unlike our competitors, we don’t pay people to do nothing but promote what it is that our organizations do, just like we don’t pay people to do nothing but raise money.

That’s not to say that we don’t raise money. We do. But most of the donations that we have are actually donations in-kind, and the biggest part of those come from the two founders of our organizations, myself and Eli Sharon (founder and director of the Schwartz Center). Like the founders of the typical Silicon Valley or Israeli high-tech startup, we founders are willing to donate our time at the beginning in the hopes of “big payoffs” later. We call this a “first-donor” model for setting up new non-profits.

In high-tech, the payoffs for the “first donors” can involve big money, and that will never happen for Eli and me. For people like us, the payoff is the work itself, that we get to spend every day working on our true calling, serving the Holy One in a way we hope will make the world at least a little bit of a better place. As someone who made so many difficult and personal compromises over the years in jobs that didn’t really fulfill me, I know how special it is to have the opportunity to make my living this way. And, yes, for now, at least, I am, between the tuition income from my students and some donations, making ends meet, personally.

Maybe this sounds crazy to you. “Surely, you’ll never be able to build big organizations that can run big programs the “first-donor” way,” you say. But I have trouble figuring out what some of these big organizations do. What exactly does the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center do for this $818K a year? I could fund five to 10 small, organizations like HavLi for that kind of money, organizations, like HavLi, that are led by inspired first-donor, entrepreneurial types that could be doing work no one else anywhere is doing.
Who will these first donors be? Maybe the young people the Jewish world seems obsessed with funding in programs from the giant Birthright Israel to the smaller Moishe House, but my guess is they’ll be people more like Eli, myself and most of the Schwartz Center’s spiritual care students — middle-aged folks who maybe had a successful first career in high-tech. They’ll come with skills and confidence (and maybe a bit of savings) from those previous careers, but also a hunger for something more — to be in service to others. Some of them will officially be retired and will have a retirement income.

And why shouldn’t the retired people who want to give back in personal ways have the chance to study spiritual care and maybe become spiritual care entrepreneurs founding new and creative programs? Here in Israel, there is little chance that there will ever be widespread funding of chaplaincy by hospitals like there is in the States, so we have to look for different/creative models. I have a million ideas for programs that I would like to run or find someone else to found new organizations to run.

The doula model, for example, might find a fertile field here in spiritual care. My wife and I hired a childbirth doula to help us when my wife gave birth. The doula herself was awesome and I was so happy just to have Danit Tsur Almog in our lives at that special — and sometimes stressful! — time. But I was also intrigued by the business model. We paid one flat price that included a handful of education/counseling sessions before the birth and then Danit being with us in the hospital during labor, regardless of how long labor took or how much support we really needed.

This one-flat price doula model could possibly be applied by spiritual caregivers around a course of treatment that had a somewhat fixed length of time, like a six-month course of chemotherapy. This kind of service would probably especially fit anyone with little experience being a patient and who could benefit not just from spiritual support, but also from the doula’s ability to help translate and interpret things that doctors — who are, unfortunately, so often in a rush — have said (we sure needed that during the pregnancy!)

,Like HavLi — but unlike most programs funded by federations — a small doula non-profit would be primarily dependent on payments from the people who use its services for income. That means, as with private businesses, most first-donor non-profits will only be able continue as long as they can find clients/customers. There’s no room here for administrators and fundraisers to suck up huge portions of donations like elsewhere in the nonprofit world.

And if you think there’s “nothing new here,” I freely admit that there are already many lean-and-mean organizations in the Jewish world that dollar-for-dollar outperform their big competitors because of inspired leadership and of a focus on service to the client. Hebrew College (which, full disclosure, employs my wife and ordained her as a rabbi) and Marla Gamoran’s fabulous little non-profit Skilled Volunteers for Israel that finds volunteer placements in Israel for Americans, including seniors, come to mind.

In the coming weeks, I plan to share more ideas about new and creative areas where spiritual care can find a home here in Israel. And I would love to hear your ideas!

@abayye on Twitter.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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