Monday, July 12, 2010



Paul Jeser –

Many lay leaders and professionals who are or were part of the Federation world are looking at what is happening today with very great sadness.

In the ‘good ole days’ (were they really that good?) the Federation was the key player in all, if not most, communities. In the ‘good ole days’ the Federations attracted the top leaders, the most significant donors, and the most creative and visionary professionals. In the ‘good ole days’ the Federations were looked to for guidance and support by the entire Jewish Community.

From what I read, see and hear, with very few exceptions, this is certainly not the case today.

Most major leaders and donors have decided that institutional life is not for them. They have set up their own Foundations, decided upon their own priorities, formed their own umbrella support system and have hired top staff.

So – as many of my friends have said: ‘Yes, we all know the problem – so what is the answer?”

I may not have THE answer, but I do have a vision.

But first, as the song says, let’s start at the very beginning.

I may be wrong, but I think that the most significant event that began the slide down the slippery slope was…. Project Renewal!

Yup – that great and most effective program began the downfall of the Federation world.

In the 50's, 60's and 70's, the major communal organizations were the Federations and their support organizations, the UJA and CJF. They attracted the major donors, leaders and professionals. That world was where all the action happened. It was the place to be.

Outside of the Synagogue world, and as a somewhat educated guess, probably 80%++ of all Jewish giving came through the Federation world. The Israel Education Fund was a quiet way that major gifts could be given through the Federation, not be allocated through the general campaign process, and be designated for special projects in Israel. With that exception most all other charitable giving and allocation was controlled by the Federation.

In the late 1970’s Project Renewal was proposed by the Jewish Agency and accepted by the Federation world. Many voiced reservations; not because the goal was not a wonderful one, but because they felt that once donors had the ability to so specifically designate their gifts (even with the parameters being agreed upon) doors would be opened that could never be closed.

There is a story about an incident that took place in the mid-70's during the discussion most Federations had about supporting Soviet Jewish Refuseniks who came to America (versus only funding those who went to Israel). A major Federation donor and board member, who felt strongly that all Soviet Jews should go to Israel and if they came to America should not be supported, seeing that he was in the very small minority, made the following statement: “I know that in a traditional democracy my position will be defeated, but let me redefine democracy for you: traditional democracy believes that one person has one vote; in my democracy, one dollar equals one vote.” Since his gift was more than all the rest of the Board members collectively, he felt that his position should prevail. Of course it didn't as it should not have. But the lesson was there – he did not want others to decide how to allocate his contribution!

Whether right or wrong, whether good for the community or bad, the fact is that most people, and certainly most – if not all - major donors do not want others to allocate their contributions and certainly do not want to spend time in organizational life.

We are now thirty years later. The desire and ability to have more control over ones own gift and what Project Renewal began has resulted in the unbelievable growth and strength of dozens (if not hundreds) of niche organizations, hundreds (!) of significant family foundations and the significant weakening of the Federation world.

So – since we all know the problem, what is the solution?

My vision – or at least the beginning of a concept: We need a totally new communal structure.

• The Federation should no longer raise funds to directly allocate to other institutions, agencies or programs.

Thus it will not be seen as a competitor.

This is the key.

Once the Federation is no longer an advocate for any specific organization, agency or program, it can become the ‘honest-broker’ for the donors and agencies and the effective organization the community needs.

• The Federation should be the communal organization whose responsibility it is to:
o Serve as a resource for all organizations in the areas of fundraising, leadership, staff development and management.

o Serve as a resource for all donors and provide ‘fair and balanced’ (sorry FNC) information about all programs and projects needing funding.

o Serve as the place where all organizational leaders meet to discuss the issues – not necessarily to force a consensus but to allow for open discussion in a neutral environment.

o Serve as a true ‘community relations committee/council’ in developing relationships between the Jewish and non-Jewish community and even within the Jewish community.

o Serve as the community-wide outreach organization to motivate those not involved to become involved and assist them in developing their own paths.

o Convene the community in times of crises or special need. Play the major role in the development and coordination of community action, programs, and responses.

• Federation leadership should include the top local leadership (lay and pro) of all communal organizations and, as importantly, the top donors (who may be much more willing to serve in this new institution than in what we now currently have).

• Funding for this ‘new’ Federation will have to come from the cadre of communal donors who, if they buy in to the new concept, will see this new structure as a benefit to all, not as a waste of time and money.

• This vision does not see the need for the UJC since the JAFI and the JDC will, as all other organizations, raise funds directly in the community. This vision does see the necessity for an organization much the same as the CJF was – a national umbrella resource for all communities.

This is drastic surgery for the community. However, without it, or something close to it, we will continue to see the diminution of the one community organization/structure that is so needed.


LisaB said...

Actually, while his comments are frequently a bit "off", there is a lot to be said for this post.

I can't speak for Project Renewal but the move towards designated giving and control and personal involvement is societal and growing and isn't going to go away.

The concept of a communal meeting place, information center and communal advisory service is very sound. The model in many ways is the Jewish Community Foundation, which is going strong in ALL communities as they allow individual donors a voice.
Many younger Jews would appreciate the input of those "older and wiser" without the precondition of "give us your money, we know what's best".

Anonymous said...

How dollars flow and why dollars flow are two distinct issues. Some of the answers are in the latter. We were unique when we talked about building communities, the power of collective ownership of the biggest challenges, being there for all in need and nurturing the Jewish state. We lost our way when we attempted to ape foundations in planting trendy trees at the expense of the Jewish forest.

Yoda the Yidl