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.