Engaged Society – Civil Society, Social Entrepreneurship and the Spirit of Volunteerism

Freedom of association, voluntary action and voluntary service, philanthropy, generosity, kindness, common good, inclusion, peaceful intentions and the notion of human rights are the core values and primary cornerstones of Civil Society. These notions do not stand detached; they need to be woven into all layers, structures and institutions of society. Israel’s Civil Society organizations have made a unique and immeasurable contribution to the development of the country, adding greatly to its social, economic and security resilience.

As early as the 5th century BC the Jewish communities in Babylonia established social, spiritual and educational institutions to organize the life of the community. Over the coming centuries, these institutions – covering everything from schools to lending associations to burial societies – became cornerstones for organized and supportive community activities, shaping and reinforcing a sense of solidarity and reciprocity. It is interesting to observe that the growth of the United States, already in from its early stages, was accompanied by a similar social-community infrastructure, as famously highlighted the French aristocrat and liberal politician Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859).

Indeed, the very creation of Israel may be regarded as the result of voluntary effort. The Zionist movement that work for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland, operated on a voluntary basis and created multiple voluntary agencies pre-state. Perhaps most iconic were the Kibbutz (collective settlement) and the Moshav (cooperative village), agricultural settlements established by voluntary communal effort. Voluntary organizations were soon founded: Magen David Adom (Red Star of David – equivalent to the Red Cross and Red Crescent) for emergency medicine; Akim, for the mentally handicapped, and Ilan for physically disabled children. Voluntary women's organizations such as Na'amat (the Histadrut Labor Union's Working and Volunteering Women), Emunah (National Religious Women's Movement), as well as immigrant aid societies and youth movements played an important role in those early years.

According to the World Bank, “Civil Society … refers to a wide array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations [NGOs], labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations.” It is a voluntary space that is not dominated or managed by the state; a domain that is not grounded in economic gains or personal benefits, but which serves society. Israel enjoys a unique civil space that is built on the understanding that the state cannot be relied upon to meet all the needs and secure the wellbeing of all its citizens. A range of not-for-profit Civil Society organizations have played an oversized role in Israel’s societal development.

The Israeli Third sector

Democratic societies are composed of three types of organizations, each driven by a different dynamic: The public sector consists of governmental organizations (national and local), funded by taxes to provide services. The business sector consists of for-profit organizations that produce and market commodities and services. Non-profit organizations or non-governmental organizations – separate from the market economy and independent of the state – form the Third sector. Israeli Third sector organizations have become an important public resource to promote collective interests and often-innovative problem solving. The Israeli third sector continues to grow and is considered to be one of the largest in the world in terms of contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) and the number of persons employed. In 2016, 43,000 nonprofit organizations were registered, a particularly high share of organizations per capita. The economic scale of the Israeli nonprofit sector is substantial and growing. The total salaried employment in the nonprofit sector comprises 13.6% of total employment in the Israeli economy (470,000). The same trend of growth can be seen in the data about expenditures in the sector, which grew to over 45 billion US $ in 2016.

In February 2008, the Government of Israel presented a comprehensive policy regarding the not-for-profit sector acknowledging it as a partner in the provision of social services, encouraging the Government to promote social entrepreneurship and to integrate not-for-profit organizations in Government contracts for social services. Indeed, Government[1] income represents the largest source of non-profit funding in Israel, coming to about 64%, compared with 18% from self-generated income and 18% from philanthropy – putting Israel among the top five countries when it comes to public funding to the Third Sector. Philanthropy activities are also highly active in Israel, main delivered through foundations, with over 6,000 funding entities. The book presents a wide range of Israeli Civil Society Organizations in such areas of health and welfare, education and care for children and adolescents at risk, immigration absorption and environmental issues, assistance to special populations and economic and employment development.

Volunteerism in Israel

The opening year of the Third Millennium was chosen by the United Nations as a proper occasion for placing the voluntary act on the agenda of the international community. The Universal Declaration on Volunteering opens with the statement that “Volunteering is a fundamental building block of Civil Society. It brings to life the noblest aspirations of humankind – the pursuit of peace, freedom, opportunity, safety, and justice for all people.” Volunteer activity in Israel occurs though a variety of channels in addition to personal volunteering:

  1. Volunteering organizations– established to an identified social need such as: welfare, education, health, religion, culture, leisure and social change. At the end of 2016, there were about 32,000 active volunteer organizations.
  2. Government and local authorities– several manage units facilitating volunteer activities, both within government offices and within volunteer organizations.
  3. Businesses – Over the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of businesses that encourage their employees to do volunteer work.

Volunteers serve in a multitude of "one-on-one" tutoring programs in kindergartens, day-care centers and schools. University students also tutor teenagers (receiving a partial stipend) through a service called Perach (flower), acting as role models for disadvantaged children. Specially trained legal advisors to "claimants," have been introduced into the Small Claims Court. Volunteers maintain the Citizens Advice Service (advising on work, taxes, social security and legal matters), hot lines and an advisory service for the aged, for youth and for women. Immigrant aid associations burgeoned with the influx of immigrants. For example, the massive wave of immigration in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union, gave rise to volunteering among Israelis who had themselves come from Eastern Europe in the 1970s; their assistance in the absorption of the newcomers was immeasurable.

Israel's security relies on considerable voluntary efforts. Thirty thousand men, women and teenagers belong to the Civil Guard, which operates under the Israel Police. During wartime, volunteers take the place of enlisted men in the social services, in hospitals and much more. Volunteers from eight rescue organizations arrive promptly on the scenes of emergencies throughout the country, often risking their own lives to save hikers and others who become lost, injured or trapped. Volunteer environmentalists and nature lovers assist in a plethora of environmental causes. Ya'el (Helping Hands) groups volunteer in all hospitals, while other groups attend to the needs of the handicapped, the disabled and bereaved families. Prevention of traffic accidents is another important area of voluntarism. Many international voluntary organizations such as Rotary, Lions, Variety, B'nai B'rith and the Soroptimists also have branches in Israel. This commitment to volunteerism has been a hallmark of Israeli civic life since the country's founding.

Civic society organization thrive in an ecosystem of supportive structures. The Israeli Civic Leadership Association acts as an umbrella organization for the non-profits, advocating for the sector on legislative and national issues, as well as representing the sector in public forums. Ruach Tova (“Good Spirit”) specializes in matching volunteers with organizations. Its Volunteer Management System contains 3,000+ nationwide organizations and 8,000+ volunteer projects in Israel. Through its website and call center it coordinates volunteer placements, as well as provides counseling and assistance to volunteers and organizations. Sheatufim was established by philanthropists and social entrepreneurs from Israel, Europe and the United States to work for a cooperation between non-profit organizations, government, business and philanthropists to create and implement a shared vision for Civil Society. The JDC Institute for Leadership and Governance focuses on enhancing the leadership qualities of key figures, senior civil servants, philanthropists, lay leaders, senior government officials, mayors and municipal leaders. It works is to bring leaders together to achieve social impact, especially around Israel closing social gaps affecting the country’s most vulnerable populations.

Youth Volunteering

Youth volunteerism in Israel is extremely pervasive, with most teens participating for at least one year as part of their senior school studies. Each year over 200,000 youth participate in the Program for Personal Development and Social Engagement coordinated and operated by the ministry of Education, implemented through civil society organizations. Israeli youth are exposed to volunteering through Youth movements, community youth centers and faith organizations. Nearly every school, local community center or religious institution has youth volunteers who support the poor, tend to the sick and elderly, support political causes, coach children, or rescue animals, among other causes.

Magen David Adom (MDA) relies heavily on youth involvement. MDA serves as the Israeli Red Cross, in addition to being its ambulance service. Like other Red Cross organizations, MDA trains nurses, coordinates blood donations, helps the disabled, the needy and the elderly, and provides ambulance and rescue services. In Israel there is one major difference: More than 60 percent of the volunteers of the Israeli Red Cross are teenagers. This is not a typo: out of MDA’s 14,000 active volunteers, 8,500 are teenagers aged 15 to 18! They invest more than 1,500,000 hours of volunteering per year. Unlike youth Red Cross volunteers in other Western countries, MDA youth perform advanced-level CPR, save people injured in car and work accidents, and provide care for the critically sick. At the end of their first year, the youth volunteers are eligible to participate in a summer course to be trained as “madrichim” (guides) involving greater responsibility, such as supervising the training of volunteers and coordinating shifts. Israeli youth can choose from a broad selection of volunteering opportunities. Maase, for example, focuses especially on youths from the socio-economic periphery and offers them unique volunteering opportunities combined with developing their skills. Each year, hundreds of youth volunteer for a year after high school in remote communities and with children-in-need.

In Israel, youth volunteers are often youth leaders. LEAD is of several organizations focused on nurturing young voluntary leadership in Israel. Once 16 years old, youth can join a two-year training initiative to develop socially oriented projects – from conce

ption to planning to execution to management. Upon graduation, the “chanichim” (apprentices) join the graduate community and continue to be active until age 34 – making LEAD the longest leadership-development program in the world! Adi Altschuler was one of LEAD’s most notable products. At 12, Adi started volunteering at ILAN, an Israeli NGO for children with physical disabilities. She became close to Kfir, a three-year-old with cerebral palsy, and noticed that Kfir longed for friends. Given there were no existing structures to help, at age 16, Adi joined LEAD, a and launched Krembo Wings, beginning with activities for Kfir and his classmates. Krembo Wings is now a large and successful organization serving more than 4,000 youths ages 7 to 21, in 47 branches in communities across Israel. Its leaders are not trained caregivers, but 14- to 18-year-old Israelis. In 2009, Altschuler and Krembo Wings received the Presidential Award for Volunteerism. In 2014, Altschuler was selected as one of the six future world leaders by TIME magazine, and spoke at the UN about social entrepreneurship as a vehicle for growth in developing countries.

Over two dozen programs, mainly operated by charities, offer volunteers from abroad a chance to serve in Israel, usually on a short-term basis. Many come each summer to take part in archeological excavations, some work in kibbutzim, while others help in social services. However, one of the more significant programs was initiated by the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services – the Volunteer for Israel Program. Under their auspices, each year, over a thousand volunteers come from 45 countries to volunteer in social service placements in Israel, assisting children and adults with physical and cognitive disabilities, youth and women at-risk, elderly, and Holocaust survivors. Volunteers support staff in daily routine, assist in creative and occupational workshops, help in paramedical treatment, give one-on-one personal attention, and share their own skills and ideas. Volunteers get accommodation, allowance, meals, laundry, transportation, trips, Hebrew classes, work insurance, mentorship and professional training.

Masa is another government-funded program that offers volunteers from abroad grants and scholarships to come to Israel to join a range of volunteer programs, covering a range of causes, such as community development, supporting at-risk youth, Arab-Jewish coexistence, and teaching English. Stints range from 5-10 months and offer an Israel experience for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 30.

Social Entrepreneurship in Israel

Social entrepreneurs are persistent individuals with innovative solutions to society’s social, cultural, and environmental challenges. According to a survey (conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in collaboration with Deutsche Bank and the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network) Israel ranks fifth “best country to be a social entrepreneur” (after the US, Canada, the UK, and Singapore), given its strong climate of entrepreneurship and availability of government funding. Israel also enjoys several incubation or education centers for budding social entrepreneurs. MTA (The Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo) Social Business Entrepreneurship Center works to harness academic assets to foster societal change in Israel through new business ventures that combine value with profit. Initiatives are competitively selected to continue to a full “Go-To-Market” process, and to receive additional 1-year support, including seed funds from investors, and a Startup status under the auspices of the College. The Social Entrepreneurship Experience program is based in the Galilee in Northern Israel, drawing young adults from the Jewish world.

Israel’s Venture Philanthropy Network works to nurture and grow sustainable social impact businesses by providing knowledge, financing and business world connections. It brings together high-tech entrepreneurs, business executives, venture capitalists, corporations and philanthropists from Israel and the US and leverages its resources, contacts and experience from the business world to develop this sector. TechForGood facilitates the application of innovative technological solutions t0 social challenges whilst generating high financial revenue by providing social entrepreneurs with the professional support, know-how and network to enable them to grow and succeed. MATAN, or United Way Israel, is another leading philanthropy vehicle to channel resources to social impact initiatives.

By initiating and developing partnerships, which bring together the business sector (local and international companies), the social sector (community organizations), the public sector (national and local offices) and thousands of donors and volunteers, MATAN creates new resources for diverse social needs throughout Israel. Being a dynamic and professional organization, MATAN creates the common ground in which all sectors can meet and join efforts, and takes a leading role in shaping and influencing the creation of Israel's Civil Society. A society in which philanthropic collaboration, involvement and responsibility is a way of life. Since its establishment in 1999 MATAN has raised and invested more than 510 million NIS ($130 million) and 238,000 volunteer hours in over 1000 social organizations throughout Israel.

Topaz is another Social Innovations organization that has supported the development of some highly unique projects that contribute to the betterment of society. Topaz’s incubation model takes ideas from their nascent phase to productive and self-sustaining professional entities. Through a process that can span up to eight years, Topaz assists its entrepreneurs in social planning, financing, fundraising, partnerships, human resources, management, legal issues and marketing. Some of its more notable achievement are the establishment of a high schools for disadvantaged youth in the fields of arts and communication, and more recently the purchase of a sailing yacht….

Corporate social responsibility

Israel has seen a flourishing CSR culture. Israeli companies and organizations have pioneered innovative approaches to design, implement, and measure CSR. For example, the Maala CSR Index integrates internationally accepted parameters with local priorities, market conditions, and business culture. Israeli CSR focuses predominantly on mitigating social disparities in support of inclusive economic growth. It emphasizes the integration of marginalized populations in the workforce and building capacities within individuals, small businesses, and local communities.


While many factors have enabled Israel to experience rapid development, it would seem that these achievements are rooted in social wisdom formed over thousands of years, and now transformed in the context of contemporary social structures through a vibrant and committed civil society. Observing the Israeli experience, five components stand out as essential for cultivating a vibrant civil society:

Cross sectional partnership – Synergies between the private, government, and civil society, creating a hybrid economic and social system.

Spirit – Imparting of civic values through parenting, education, and societal institutions.

Infrastructure – Supportive public policies leading to public resource allocation to strengthen civil society organizations.

Reciprocity – Ensuring an open space for civic engagement and social entrepreneurship to flourish. Collaboration – A wide range of support organizations to foster collaborations and exchanges of ideas, along with support, training and representation services for the frontline civil society organizations.