Monday, November 17, 2008


All of us remember the premise of The Seinfeld Show -- it was a program "about nothing." An incredible success, the series ended after nine spectacular years. Today, in the midst of the UJC General Assembly, we observe the 9th birthday of United Jewish Communities, the national organization that has similarly become a show about nothing. Friends, it didn't have to be this way -- we all share in the blame that comes with the knowledge that nine years after the merger that created it, UJC is less than the sum of its parts. For many reasons this is not a happy birthday.

Howard Rieger was welcomed to UJC's Presidency four years ago with enthusiasm and high hopes. The first signs of problems occurred a few months later when, after agreement with federation executives on a special campaign's priorities, Rieger and his then Chair, Bobby Goldberg, rolled out Operation Promise without any priorities -- a $160 million effort in chaos as the priorities established by UJC and federation professionals were erased without prior consultation on the very day Operation Promise was to be approved by the federations . The Campaign would flounder on the shoals of an ill-informed, ill-considered decision by two people, no more no less -- accepted by a rubber-stamp ownership that would stamp again and again to the point where it was felt it could easily be ignored. It was just the beginning.

At the Toronto GA that followed, UJC committed itself to focus on the Next Generation. But for the Development Department's new programming, UJC ignored this new-found commitment that was seemingly forgotten as UJC moved on. Interrupted with the success of the Cabinets' Tel Aviv 1 and the UJC-led collective effort in response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, UJC proceeded toward the 2006 Los Angeles General Assembly in disarray. Without consultation with a dynamic National GA Chair, Atlanta's Linda Selig, the CEO with his incoming Chairs, Joe Kanfer and Kathy Manning, agreed with Chicago to a total refocus of the Assembly toward Israel, reeling under the affects of the Intifada and the Hezbollah attacks. After Rieger unilaterally and inappropriately rejected a compromise that would have retained a single gala event during the GA, Selig resigned, replaced by...Kanfer and Manning. The GA was a success, the focus right...and, then, UJC immediately left Israel in its rear-view mirror; the process leading to the success...sad.

Slowly it became clear that UJC leadership was a closed shop. Secrecy and exclusion became the operational mentality as Rieger and Kanfer clamped down on expanding their leadership cadre beyond the few who they trusted. The impacts were beginning to be felt in 2007-2008 in important but negative ways: criticism from within or without meant ostracism and worse, UJC professionals who pushed back were forced out in a series of thoughtless purges and new ideas would be limited to the few within the "circle of trust" who either raised them or applauded loudly those of Kanfer/Rieger. Certainly the voices of two or three Large City Executives were heard, but, Rieger, through either pleading or temporizing often coopted them into the belief that "all is well at UJC -- we just have some kvetches who hate everything we do." They were right and everyone else was wrong -- sort of a megalomania writ large. The impact -- there was no understanding at 111 Eighth Avenue that more and more federations were paying UJC less and less attention.

The IEC was the federations' success. UJC prioritized the allocation of IEC funds raised by the federations but otherwise contributed little leadership in the $362 million raised in the federations' donors' outpouring of concern and caring for Israel under attack. Unlike prior national campaigns where the national organization led (see, e.g., Gerry Nagel's, z'l, history of the incredible UJA-driven Operation Exodus), the IEC saw UJC playing a small cheerleaders' role. But UJC did do one thing, it unilaterally ended this Special Campaign while terror bombs continued to rain down on Sderot and the South. This was not leadership as we had come to know it.

These UJC leaders decided that 2007 would be dominated by purges, the cleansing of its professional leadership under the guise of "tearing down the silos" and "changing the culture" in the development and implementation of a dictated "Organizational Strategy" that would take UJC...nowhere. Senior professional women seemed to be targeted in a particularly uncaring, inhumane manner unbecoming the federations' national organization, unbecoming any Jewish organization. With Manning and Kanfer Chairing the 2007 Nashville GA, the focus was on UJC's own navel, the Israel concerns in the same rear-view mirror as was the NextGen. It was a GA where UJC's leaders decided UJC would talk about itself...and talk and talk. Soon, however, UJC would again change its focus.

Like a patient with bipolar depression without the necessary medication, UJC leaders appeared to be subject to violent swings from one focus to another. In 2007 the Organizational Strategy was to be the answer to all questions, just a few months later later...not so much. (Of course, it wasn't very much at the time with an emerging organizational chart that reflected UJC's continuing inability to delimit its focus to the areas of federations' greatest needs.) I keep the Organizational Strategy on my desk and, after multiple readings, I have come to the inevitable conclusion that Howard Rieger is the victim here of a dictatorial Board Chair who believed (and has succeeded in imposing) his dictates override all else.

The critical $1.5 million "Research and Development Fund" contemplated by the Organizational Strategy and articulated therein was to be applied to some well thought-out if bare bones outlined goals --none of which contemplated being spent in whole or in part on a "Marketing/Branding Initiative." The goals of the original Strategy, ultimately approved by the UJC Board potentially would have been of direct benefit to the federations; instead, it appears that Kanfer demanded the $1.5 million (now up to $2 million) be diverted to his folly. UJC being devoid of any lay leaders who might have pushed back, the federations are now the victim of Mr. Kanfer's apparent mantra: "Let them eat cake." Rieger, who had unprofessionally filibustered the Nominating Committee in support of Kanfer's nomination as Chair, now became Kanfer's penultimate victim. (The ultimate victim in all of this, of course, has been the federation system.)
Here were the goals of the "R & D Fund" as set forth in the 2007 Organizational Strategy:

"In order to convert UJC's strategic goals into actionable outcomes, the budget includes a $1.5 million Research and Development Fund for New Strategies to provide seed funding for conceptual development, planning and implementation in conjunction with the six strategic platforms..." (emphasis added)

These six strategy areas were: "... expanding UJC's continental community development/capacity building; building a total resource development model for UJC and the federations; rebuilding our donor base; enhancing Jewish peoplehood and identity; improving stakeholder relationships; and generating big ideas..."

This was good stuff -- and into the Dumpster that is the current history of United Jewish Communities it went. Yes, the ink was not even dry of this iteration of UJC strategic planning when Kanfer apparently ordered it abandoned to throw what would ultimately be $2,000,000 at a Las Vegas marketing and branding research Firm with no prior experience with or understanding of our system. (As Kanfer and Rieger viewed the past through the prism of their own distance from and disdain for it, they didn't bother to ask at least Joel Tauber about the millions wasted on the Delta Consulting engagement at UJC's infancy.)

And, while UJC was allowing essentially a well-intentioned Subcommittee to unilaterally legislate an increase in the budget for the Marketing and Branding Initiative from the $850,000 (more or less) approved by the Executive Committee to $2,000,000, UJC was not only ignoring its governance, it was ignoring its responsibilities. In early 2008 the Large City Executives (with their own hired professional) wrote a devastating analysis of UJC's direction (or lack thereof) -- Refining UJC's Vision. Even when the Budget & Finance Chair asked that it be distributed, Rieger and Kanfer refused, ultimately rewriting it, redacting out its criticism and distributing the totally revised document under its original title. (Strange but true.) And, in 2008, without any recognition that 155 federations had adopted UJC's Vision and Mission at the time of the Merger, the UJC crew rewrote it, published it in a Howard's View and ignored its governance requirements in so doing. And, sad to say, few noticed and fewer cared. UJC was in disarray, deconstructing itself while convincing itself that all was well.

And all the while in 2009 the dark curtain of economic collapse fell on the federations, the CEO was issuing serial "asks" of millions of dollars from the federations for high priority needs. Consistent with the history of the current leadership, one after another they came, like a torrent, none vetted through UJC's governance -- the top was raining its requests down on the owners. This was done without vetting, without priority, without any plan. (And if the CEO wasn't doing so, "asks" came from strange quarters -- e.g., under Delaware's Toni Young, the Israel-Overseas Chair's Work Group vetted a need for $13.2 million in direct aid the Sderot Victims of Terror. Allegedly no money was left from the IEC so she made a plea to the federations for funding. How did that go? Nobody has followed up.)

The economic crisis that has hit all federations like Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans should have been a matter with which UJC was prepared from the earliest warning signs. But UJC couldn't stir itself to action. There were a variety of reasons. First, although Jewish communal thought leaders were issuing serial warnings of the impacts a financial crisis would have, the Large City Executives essentially agreed that no one was to utter the "r" ("recesson") word -- as if their very denial could stem the tide. Rieger being one with them could not resist them. (Contrast this with the same collective group's complaints about the Jewish Agency's alleged invidious influence with the Government of Israel to cause the then Prime Minister to argue, in the midst of all evidence to the contrary, "there is no hunger issue in Israel." Oh, well.)

Second, the logical area within UJC to plan, offer assistance and intervene at a time their mobilization was critical, had been stripped of its most seasoned professional leadership and its lay leadership (the Chairs of Campaign and Planned Giving) were serving only in response to personal pleas from the lead professionals to do so. Rieger and Kanfer, Manning and Gelman, in tearing down the fictional UJC "silos," had gutted the very organizational leadership necessary to respond to an FRD crisis. For the UJC "community capacity builders" who had been handed FRD responsibility, well, they would go about "business as usual" until the crisis had begun to overwhelm the communities' ability to respond -- and, then and only then, did they hang out their sign "we're from UJC and we want to help" which consisted of asking the federations "how can we help" and issuing periodic "Economic Crisis e-Letters" and web links.

Here, upon UJC's 9th Yom Huledet, we find an organization into which the federations have invested over $400,000,000 since its birth groping for direction, flip-flopping and caught up in a malaise it has brought upon itself. Promise of focus on the NextGen in 2006-2007, flipping to an "Organizational Strategy" in 2007, rewriting UJC's Vision and Mission with no governance authority to do so, commencing a new Strategic Plan in 2008 (its third in four years) -- each time starting anew. At the end of the day, the UJC we see today, sadly, is just not working. It is not getting better. Confidence has been eroded.

When I read Howard Rieger's interview in the JTA last week on the cusp of the GA, I was reminded of Senator McCain's quote as everything collapsed around him: "The fundamentals of our economy are strong." I look at the sad defense of investing $2 million in a Research and Branding Initiative without authoriztion for more than $850,000 and I understand. I know why Kanfer and Rieger are so fixated on this "Initiative" and another strategic plan -- a desperation to show that they are doing something and that they have accomplished something by the time they are gone. But desperation rarely produces results.

The November 10 New Yorker has a magnificent post-election cover --a long, long dark tunnel with a bright blue light shining at its end. That symbolizes for me and for so many of you that we must get through the tunnel that this leadership has created to the light; a light that will be captured and constructed by new top lay and professional leadership starting on or before UJC's 10th Birthday. While, unfortunately, we haven't a moment to spare, and our very institutions are at risk today, we have no choice but to plan to begin again with new leadership to bring our national organization to the glory we had envisioned for it. I know we can be better; for a $400 million investment we damn well should be better. The time for patience with this tiny leadership group is...over. This UJC version of the Seinfeld Show will go off the air not with a bang but a whimper.


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