Life & Culture

‘Israel is my passion’

When Danni Franks first visited Israel as a JFS school girl she fell in love with the country she later made her home. And, as Gaby Wine reports, she found an innovative way to support her new nation


When Danni Franks left Bristol University in 1995, she imagined that she would land herself a plum marketing role, climb up the career ladder and never look back. Fast forward 25 years, and instead, she is founder and CEO of Myisrael, a charity which supports thousands of Israel’s most vulnerable citizens.

But it could so easily have gone the other way. Speaking to me from the flat in Tel Aviv she shares with son Yoni, 10, she recalls sitting in front of her computer in London in the summer of 2004, on the verge of signing a permanent contract with Disney. “I remember just staring at the screen, asking myself: ‘Is this what I really want?’ I had already worked at Sky and had been travelling for six months. I was at a crossroads. If I was going to make a change, now was the time to do it.”

While the decision to move from the UK to Israel quickly became a fait accompli, the idea of starting a charity didn’t take root immediately.

Talking at lightning speed over Zoom, Franks says: “My plan was to get a job at a blue-chip company in Israel. I believed that I’d get off the plane and companies would be biting my arm off for me to work for them. But I got it wrong.” In stark contrast to the highly-structured working environment in London, in Israel she recalls going into an office and finding “four people, each doing 15 different roles” and no vacancies.

She ended up working in the fundraising department for a charity and it was there that she began thinking about how differently she would do things if she were at the helm. Her overriding concern was the lack of transparency between charities and their donors. “If I’m going to give £50, where does it go? Most people have no idea. You don’t know if it’s impactful or who it helps. I wanted to empower people to make a difference. Not just the £20,000 guy, but the kid who gives their pocket money.”

The concept was three years in the making, coming to fruition in 2008 with the founding of Myisrael. The 47-year old prides herself on the guarantee that every pound or shekel donated will go directly to those in need. But she stresses that her model for charitable giving isn’t just about the monetary relationship. “For many Jewish people, when they come to Israel, there is a sense of peoplehood and shared values that we don’t experience anywhere else in the world. There is an emotional connection. So for me, it was about taking that and building on it.”

To this end, Myisrael donors can choose what to support from 18 “under the radar” causes (18 being the numerical value for Chai — life). These include Maslan, which offers support to survivors of domestic and sexual violence, Misholim, which gives art, drama and music therapy to children with special needs and their families and Click, a charity providing companionship and innovative activities for elderly people, many of whom are Holocaust survivors. The donors know how their money will be spent and often receive feedback from their chosen charity, which frequently results in a lasting bond.

Franks has seen first-hand the impact of these donations. “I’ve heard students talk about the chances they never thought they’d get, mothers talk of how they’re going to build new lives and seen the joy of a child getting a pair of replacement glasses that his parents couldn’t afford.”

In a touching promotional video for Myisrael’s annual Mychanukahgift campaign, where donors can buy a gift for a cause on behalf of a relative or friend, Danni appears with her delightful son,Yoni. He tells his mum that he feels happy knowing his grandparents bought a board game for a child whose family couldn’t afford one.“The biggest thing we hear from people who take part in our Chanukah campaign is that it opens conversations with their children about important issues like poverty and living with special needs. Raising awareness and making people philanthropists from an early age is for me the most exciting thing.”

It was when she was just a few years older than Yoni is now, on a JFS Israel programme, that her “love affair” with the country began. “It felt like a homecoming. I got off the plane and kissed the ground.” That first visit evoked a deep, unwavering affection.“Israel is my passion. I always wanted to make it better.”

The opportunity to do just that presented itself when she met the founder of Crossroads, a charity which works with at-risk youth. “This charity faced challenges experienced by most smaller non-profits, mostly a lack of resources. They didn’t get any donations from the UK. People knew about the well-established [Israel] charities, but I wanted to bring the little guys to the forefront.” It was this conversation that planted the seed for Myisrael.

As well as raising funds, Myisrael also provides valuable mentoring support. “The organisations might need help with IT, their social media strategy or with their team structure.” Some of its early causes are now able to manage without Myisrael’s support. “It’s a bit like raising children. We only let them go when we feel they can stand on their own two feet.”

The pandemic has presented a string of challenges, especially when some operations had to temporarily cease. But Myisrael, like its founder, has been firing on all cylinders, providing laptops for Ethiopian-Israeli students to learn online, distributing 4,000 food vouchers to families in need and funding taxi rides for cancer patients to receive chemotherapy. “The poorest members of society don’t have 150 shekels (£35) to get to hospital.”

Asked about the impact Covid has had on fundraising, Franks replies wryly: “Ask me again in six months time.” Although supporters have been generous during the pandemic, she is worried about next year, especially as restrictions mean that a question mark still hangs over Myisrael’s communal events.

But not one to dwell on the uncertainty, she remains focused on the positive — the people Myisrael helps.

“The founders of these organisations are heroes. What they do may not appear to be life-saving, but when I get inside an organisation that helps youth-at-risk and I hear about the suicide calls, or a charity that gives purpose to elderly people, thereby increasing their life-span, I am in awe.”

Answering the last few interview questions en route to another meeting, with the cacophony of Dizengoff Street audible in the background, she seems suited to the frenetic pace of Israeli life. As she says, one of the skills she brought with her from the corporate sector was a can-do attitude. “When I get an idea, I make it happen really quickly. I also trust my gut a lot. So far, it has guided me quite well.” There is no doubt that the 31-year-old from Edgware, who sat at her computer 16 years ago and decided not to sign a contract with Disney, would agree.


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