Wednesday, April 29, 2009


While I have been preoccupied with UJC and the multitude of ways in which it is has failed the federation system over the past few years, apparently I have missed so much. In particular Israel's and federations' predicted or potential demise. In The Daily Beast, Aaron Klein, who wrote The Late, Great State of Israel, wrote Will Israel Cease to Exist, and in The Jewish Journal, Michael Berenbaum raised the question Has Federation Abandoned Its Central Role? Both articles are provocative, the answer to both is a resounding "NO" and today I would like to address Berenbaum's question even though, had we a functioning national organization, someone there would certainly be a more compelling respondent.

Michael Berenbaum, a past Executive Director of the D.C. Community Relations Council and a noted Holocaust Scholar is the Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute in Los Angeles. He questions why, if federations have abandoned their historic role of central funding "and created a void at the core of our community," why should the community continue to support them through Federation; instead making gifts directly? He asked: "...if the Federation is but another service provider, how are we to know what a good service provider it is and what its priorities are in order to assess where funds are to be directed?" And he takes a shot at the Los Angeles Community Foundation for failing to monitor its investment in a Madoff Fund while failing to note both the independence of the LA Foundation from Federation and the truly small amount of funds placed with Madoff. But it is good to be challenged by a caring gadfly because it requires one to give serious thought to the response.

First, I acknowledge that my community is a unique place, with strong, caring lay and professional leadership that has invested wisely in creating a great professional staff and has integrated the young and old in lay leadership so that traditions of commitment and involvement, and an understanding of our historic communal role in collective responsibility has passed l'dor l'dor. All of us should understand that federation is community -- as Charles Bronfman used to say "community with a capital 'C.'" Where federation is not community, both Federation and community are lost. Pirke Avot tells us, demands of us: al tifrosh min ha'tzibur, "do not separate thyself from community." And, in too many places, the demand of a few donors to see where their dollars go has gone from an individual demand to a community imperative and in that change from the Maimonidesian maxim -- "neither the donor nor the recipient shall know each the other" -- is reflected, as is Berenbaum's misplaced, I think, focus on Madoff losses, the breakdown of trust in the community and, thereby, the question of federation's purpose today. But the core purposes remain -- to build and reinforce Community and serve as a laboratory from which new ideas for caring for our People can emerge, be tested, fail and succeed as in no other place.

The federation system is, at its essence, predicated on trust -- trust by the donor in the community, trust in the application of an umbrella gift for the greatest needs, locally and overseas, trust by the donor in communal leadership, trust of the federation in the exercise of the central communal planning function. Where that trust has never existed, or where it has broken down, the community is rent asunder. Michael Berenbaum has pointed to instances in his experience. Let me point to some others in mine that need course correction if Federation is to regain "...the Central communal Role."

` Agency fund raising -- in every community, particularly the largest, federations, which had been for decades the largest funder of local agencies, have, in many if not most instances, become a much more minor provider. Local agencies have often been encouraged to hire development officers or fund raising consultants to make up the gap left behind when federations reduced support. And, without communal discipline, the local agencies have gone into, been forced into, a direct competition with the federations to survive, let alone grow. In my community there has been an historic respect by the local beneficiaries for the federation's "campaign corridor" and a commitment by federation not only of continuing budget and occupancy support, but of the creative use of federation endowment to support agency initiatives -- through loans or guarantees.

And, this brings me to...

` Separate community foundations -- For good and substantive reasons, in many communities the community (I hesitate to call if Federation) endowment foundation is separately incorporated or operated independently of Federation. The results may be a bigger pie, but they have also been, in many instances, even though lay led by past and present federation lay people, a competitor for donors and dollars and operated without real regard for the federation agenda and/or the needs determined by the central planning agency. Where the endowment is integrated within federation, the community qua community is strengthened and all financial resource development is driven by the federation-driven agenda for community. Where the foundation/endowment is "independent," even though there are examples of creative synchronicity, too often the federated community finds itself divided -- and a divided community cannot succeed.

` The "professionalized community" -- the larger federations are extremely complicated business enterprises. Instead of the "old days" -- where six or seven men (and back then they were generally all men) would sit around a table, determine communal needs and, right there, commit to fund them, today our multi-million dollar enterprises require exceptional, trained women and men to run them. Lay leadership becomes more and more "part-time" meaning that community professionals must spend more and more time on engagement, consultation and filling in the blanks to assure the community lay and professional leadership are moving in the same direction. Where the professionals and lay leadership are successful, the community moves forward; where the professionals and lay leadership are not successful, the community is divided and trust is lost. The federations (and their national organization) have been built upon a strong lay-professional partnership. Maintaining a balance in that partnership is critical to building Community and federation.

` "Bowling alone" -- The desire by the donor to "follow the money," to resist what some communities characterize as the "black hole" into which a gift or grant to a federation or grant recipient may fall, has raised the question that Michael Berenbaum's piece has put on the table. As federations adopt their donors' "designated giving" approach to allocations, the sense of collective response that ennobles and distinguishes federations from all other charities is lost and with that loss, Community is as well. Federations can no longer be the (for those that once were and for those who would be) the focal point of the Jewish community.

That goal -- being at the very center for the Jewish Community in 157 Jewish federations remains the goal as does, as New York's John Ruskay described it recently "...federations, working with others, (are) essential to the transformation of Jewish life." Today I can still say that my and my family's gift to the Chicago Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago touches 600,000 lives in Chicago, in Israel and around the Jewish world wherever a Jew is in need helping to transform their lives as Jews. How much longer I will be able to make that statement will be decided not in Chicago, where this is part of our communal n'shama, but in 156 federations -- in too many where the questions are not even being asked.




Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. As a federation professional, I as well as my colleagues, constantly work with our donors and community members to make the most of our time and resources.

Simply put, we need to focus on our core competencies. Federations are equipped to raise funds, plan, and allocate- not provide social services, et al. And likewise, constituent agencies should be able to focus on owhat they do best, meeting individual and communal needs. When federations and agencies can work in harmony, it is a beautiful thing that truly maximizes the value and impact of donations along with volunteer and professional time.

This is a time for introspection and looking to the future, because just as this economic downturn came it will pass. We can take this time to rebuild or strengthen the relationships between federations and agencies that will serve us all well for decades to come.

RWEX said...

michael said...
My basic response is that I was not addressing the Federation globally but locally and that the changes in policy of the Los Angeles Federation seem to me -- and from the response, or more accurately the non-response, to me by its President, to indicate that the Los Angeles Federation has decided that it is not its role to foster community but to rival its own constituent agencies and to let the community fend for itself, without a central coordinating agency.

I concur with Wexler on the need for community. I also concur on the need for a Federation.

Where we disagree is that the Madoff matter was not only about money -- the amount some 18 million dollars, is hardly trivial, but about responsibility. The failure to do due dilligence should have led to the resignation of the Investment Committee or in a worse case scenario, their firing. The absence of either indicates that failure has no consequences, and that failure is accetable to the Jewish community. One can lose communal funds with relative impunity. Were I to have failed like that, I would resign our of shame and I damn well should be fired.

Michael Berenbaum

April 29, 2009 12:36 PM

RWEX said...


Thanks for your Op-Ed piece and your Comment. (Your Comment somehow was posted to a much earlier and, at least as to your Comment, irrelevant, so I have moved it here.