Sunday, July 11, 2010


There are those who have determined that, as they state with absolute certainty, that the "federation moment" has come and gone -- as one put it recently "the old model doesn't work anymore." Then there is the Los Angeles Federation's new CEO who has concluded, after six months on the job, that "the model of the Federation as an umbrella is gone." This followed the crisis that the Jewish Federation of Greater San Francisco faced in laying off 33 employees last week. Each of these independent actions will be cited by some as "further evidence" supporting their pre-formed conclusions.

Those doomsayers ignore the fact that 159 Jewish federations (and I assume the Network of non-federated communities) which, in the aggregate, in a terrible economy, last year raised in excess of $800,000,000 from 350,000 donors allocated to helping local agencies, to its partners in Israel and overseas -- to assisting Jews in need wherever they may live. (And, certainly, federations must do better in campaign and donor development if they are to thrive.) To agencies, hospitals and universities competing for Jewish philanthropic dollars and donors, the federations system, even in times of declining dollars and donors, is a source of envy...and, often, deprecation. Even in these challenging times, federation is the one organization about which I think everyone would truly say: "if it didn't exist, we would have to create (or recreate) it" -- because the alternative is communal chaos. Those who assert the "end of days" offer no alternative ("Federation as hub" not umbrella?)-- one must assume that some sense that a "federation free" world of multiple appeals to Jewish donors in every community would be nirvana; they would take us back to an age when it was every organization for itself.

In many of the cited communities Federation has engaged new lay leaders or a CEO new to federation work, places where the federation model has tried to find its place in a highly competitive, undisciplined Jewish philanthropic environment. If one reads the words of LA's new CEO carefully, his and his Chair's redesign is is intended to change that Federation's approach to gain greater traction in a community where it has had so little, not to bury the Federation model but to change it. I am in Chicago, where the success and place of the federation is, perhaps, unparalleled; where our federation is the central address of the Jewish community. friends may draw their conclusions from their environments while I draw mine not only from my Chicago experience but from my visits with federations around the country as well. It is true that there are many Jewish communities which are facing many challenges today...but I sense among their leaders, lay and professional alike, a commitment to building and rebuilding and, where necessary, to new experiments in recreating federation.

The impetus for new models of communal organization has several sources: the impacts of the economic collapse, the rise (with the encouragement of federations themselves) even the dominance of designated giving, our increasing mobility and the demise of our rootedness in any given community, the diminishing reach of federations to current generations of donors let alone the next, and other factors. Where experiments in change have been suggested -- e.g., a paper now several years old drafted for discussion at what I recall was a JFNA/UJC event by the Jacksonville and San Antonio federation CEOs, or the ideas flowing from Houston's introspection leading that community forward and shared with JFNA -- JFNA's leaders, lacking any real understanding of the federation movement, just ignored them. And, therein lies the rub.

The rub, the tragedy I perceive is that the federations today lack a national organization that is capable of leading and partnering with local federations as was intended when UJC (now JFNA) was first created by merger. An organization that fails to comprehend its own purposes, let alone the values and principles of the federation movement, can't lead the federations through change. That is the tragic and seminal failure of the federations themselves. For $30.3 million dollars this year and last (and close to $400 million since JFNA was created by merger), our investment, we have demanded literally nothing from the national entity we created and fund and we have received almost nothing in return. Worse, I know of a number of federation leaders, mainly professional but lay as well, who have sought JFNA's assistance (or at least a response), and have been ignored if not shunned.

It did not have to be this way; it doesn't have to be this way. Emerging communities evidencing both high growth and high potential needing both organizational and campaign assistance were to be part of a JFNA Emerging Communities effort -- a JFNA/Federation partnership authorized by the JFNA Board's vote in support of the FRD Study which proposed it. Started with two federations and moving forward, JFNA's leaders literally and precipitously "pulled the plug" on the embryonic effort without any governance authority to do so after two years. Were the program to be revived (which would require some funding [easily diverted from any number of JFNA programs that have no value to the federations] and a deployment of staff members with federation experience), it would send a message to the federations of a new sense of partnership.

It was only three years ago when then UJC professionals turned their collective backs (with no lay involvement) on a mega-donor's offer to fully fund a national e-philanthropy effort. The lay leader, both a Next Gen model of federation involvement and philanthropy, was embarrassed with a "don't call us, we'll call you" attitude at JFNA HQ. Could that leader's interest in serving our system be revived? Not if all JFNA is about is marketing, Washington and waiting for the next disaster to show its "worth."

So, what is needed? First and foremost those federations which provide the bulk of JFNA Dues need to meet to assure that the current self-perpetuating lay leadership oligarchy ends now. Those federation leaders must assure that the next Board Chair (and if the office is to continue [which it shouldn't] Chair of the Executive) be truly representative of those who pay the Dues and that the next group of officers will be immediately recognized as thought leaders and campaign leaders both deserving of respect and respectful of the lay-professional partnership.

Second, a "coalition of willing federations" must join together with the JFNA CEO and President (and if the CEO and President is unwilling to go forward without him) to do for JFNA what it is no longer is capable of doing for itself -- setting priorities for the organization that are in synch with the priorities of the federations themselves...and then (a) commit to funding those priorities and (b) soliciting other federations to join them in a renewed national effort.

No, the federation construct is not "dead" no matter how often some repeat the unsupported conclusion that they are; but our national organization is comatose or tone deaf or both. The federations are hurting badly and require new experiments in governance and financial resource development, in donor acquisition and retention (and I am not suggesting #ish or Heroes or any other toilet training, run it up the flagpole silliness or the extravagance of a wasted "investment" in Sheatufim of close to $1 million of your money with no outcomes, no purpose), in attracting the next generations to lay leadership and in retaining, training and attracting professionals into the federations' work, and in creating a living bridge between North American Jews and the federation system and Israel while continuing to care for those of our People most in need.

It's time for a change -- actually, many changes. And, no one is home.



paul jeser said...

There could be a dozen points you make in this post that prove just the opposite - that the FED system - AS WE KNEW IT - is no longer viable.

But I'll just use one, your last: "It's time for a change -- actually, many changes. And, no one is home."

There is 'no one home' because the current system is not the home people want to live in - and too many lay and prof leaders do not see the need for significant change.

As one who, for a few years, has been trying to get people to understand that the foundation on which the system was built is no longer viable I believe that a completely new foundation must be built. The old one just can't be fixed.

Richard - you have my permission to share my 'paper' with my vision of the possibllities.

Anonymous said...

We have lost our will but have not lost our purpose. There is a vital public Jewish space and that is the arena (perhaps somewhat down but hardly out) that Federations must operate in. We are not private foundations and our support for programmatic innovation cannot and should not be at the cost of a communal structure (locally and globally) we have spent a century creating. Our relevance has always been in the organizational good we create, the connections of Jews to other Jews that we nurture. The rest is commentary.

LisaB said...

Federations were built to be funded by and support communities and a communal structure that no longer exists in many cases. A tight knit group of immigrants supporting each other, and where everybody knew the name of the Federation President and major fundraisers, has become an amalgam of towns and groups formed of highly mobile adults who don't have any sense of community and haven't a clue who those figurehead people are.

The vast majority of younger donors are people whose families were involved in Federation and who were encouraged to participate. People of less involved backgrounds aren't particularly comfortable in the environment and aren't part of that "club". While the clubbiness is an important aspect of continuity, growing the donor base and including more Jews means including people with very different backgrounds and ideas. By their very nature that means changing the atmosphere and focus. And is that really such a terrible thing? Are federations really exactly the same as they were 80 years ago? I think not.

Just to elaborate. I was introduced to the federation system a couple of years ago when I was hired as a professional for a very specific fundraising program. I was blown away by the dedication and passion of many of the lay people, so much so that when the program ended (due to the economy) I joined myself as a lay person and volunteered for several committees. I was asked specifically to co-chair a committee focusing on outreach, as I fit one of the target demographics and it was felt I would bring a new perspective.

I'm sorry to say that it hasn't been a particularly energizing experience. Something I can't say about another committee I joined, which has been nothing but a pleasure. When it comes to outreach, everybody wants their opinion validated but nobody wants to listen, at least among the really senior (and older) lay people. There are a few among the YLD crowd who really get it and try to redirect the federations energy (and their efforts are working) but it is an uphill battle. I'm sorry to say that there is a strong mindset among the senior crowd that suggests listening to some 25 year old bright young thing (of course the spoiled grandchild of the same elder) about using Facebook and Twitter is the way to go. That's how we end up with #ish and such nonsense.

I understand the concern you have about the new movement to hire execs from without, and it may be justified. However from the lay perspective, the older lay people have GOT to open their minds so suggestions from that in-between generation. They came of age as the immigrant communities were breaking apart. They are comfortable in a wide variety of situations and they understand technology and more a-la carte giving without being completely enamored of themselves.

I know a lot of really passionate and engaged people willing to give considerable time and energy to helping the federation system grow and thrive in a changing world, but they have to be allowed in and taken seriously.

RWEX said...

Dear Lisa,

You had sent an additionla Comment which I inadvertently "rejected." If you would resend it, it will be published.

Thanks for your insights.

lisab said...

Mr. Wexler,

Everything I had to say was posted, thank you. There was just a glitch due to the length of my post.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on my experience. This is with a large, powerful and currently well funded federation, although they are suffering currently and watching the campaign drop as the elder major donors are dying off.

I'd also mention that your impression of the system based on Chicago is similar to that of a friend of mine from Toronto. Both cities have strong federations and very united Jewish communities. It isn't the same elsewhere.