Wednesday, November 24, 2010


As several of you have noted in Anonymous Comments and in personal e-mail to me, an undisputed horrific decline in the number of donors to the federation annual campaigns is the primary contributor to the crisis (I think that's the right word) confronting the federation system and, to some, hard evidence of federations waning communal leadership. Let's reflect on just how bad things are, what JFNA is (or more to the point, is not) doing about it, and then try to answer the question: "what can be done?"

Let's start with one stark comparison. We are celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Operation Exodus this year and next. In the peak years of that incredible campaign UJA and, in the main, the federations, delivered gifts from 1,250,000 donors; today the best estimates are that as a system the federations have in the aggregate 450,000 donors (some have concluded that the number is really as low as 350,000 donors to the Annual Campaign). In other words, twenty years post-Exodus our donor base has shrunk to at most 36% of what it was twenty years ago. This is nothing less than a tsunami, overwhelming the system we once had.

For many years, first UJA and then JFNA promised to deliver a donor acquisition plan that might help to reverse the flood of donors leaving us for elsewhere or nowhere. UJA at least tried. At JFNA, just a few years ago, it was claimed that the national organization "held in its hands" the plan; then the responsible FRD professional (who was totally commited to the effort) was terminated plan -- not then, not since. Today, under Jerry Silverman, it seems clear that JFNA is engaged in a series of failed alleged "donor acquisition experiments" -- Heroes, #ish -- which were "sold" as Next/Now Generation attractions to bring hundreds of thousands, if not more, of new prospects to the federations. These "experiments" have attracted almost none to the federations.

Some federations, already deep in a hole, are hoping against hope that new, more attractive, interesting and accessible websites will drive the donor numbers (or, at the least, engage those who are disengaged today) up. JFNA and the Los Angeles Federation have engaged those who claimed to be the cutting edge of Obama's e-donor efforts to lead this one -- all they have proved to date is that raising money for a political candidate and raising donors for our Jewish philanthropy just aren't the same thing. (And just how many $10 online contributions will it take to make up for the loss of one $100,000 donor? 10,000 by my count.)

One insightful Commentator to my November Post -- DO THEY NOT KNOW OR DO THEY NOT CARE? -- observed: "Federations haven't changed much in decades, besides raising less money from fewer donors now. This is not because federations are less relevant in the needs that they are addressing, in fact the economic crisis has shown that federations have the opportunity to address community issues at the macro level. The quality with which federations are communicating what they do, what the communal needs are, and creating the opportunities for meaningful engagement of younger community members is the problem."

Let me repeat -- The quality with which federations are communicating what they do, what the communal needs are, and creating the opportunities for meaningful engagement of younger community members is the problem. But JFNA's attention is elsewhere. Where on the GA Program was this crisis publicly discussed? Even those federations which presented on getting through the recession focused on "cost-saving measures" as JFNA couldn't seem to even identify the federation focus issues let alone suggest best practices or, heaven forbid, any answers.

So, what can be done? As LA's CEO, Jay Sanderson, no longer new to the position, commented to JTA's Jacob Berkman: The GA "..was a missed opportunity" to help the federations come to terms with defining "[W]hat do we stand for as a system" as federations in 2011? Let's start there -- there are many examples of federations which have come to grips with this question and could offer guidance -- but they weren't called upon because the subject wasn't up for discussion at the GA.

Yes, we have to redefine what federation is by building on those elements that brought us to federation and understanding the changes that have to take place to reestablish or establish federation's roles as the central address in and for the community. Once we have that "elevator story" of what we are, and how we articulate the needs as the Commentator above suggested, we can develop a compelling Case for Giving (some federations already have) and take the case and the cause to our donors -- face to face. If in my community we identify 5,000 "skips" at the major gift level, or in yours 1000 or in yours 100, that's where we start -- not where we finish. I know, this sounds like the dinosaur in me writing once again but visiting directly with our once best customers must be one point of entry.

Another must be to invest in young men and women with high yet unrealized potential. Their peers must reach out to them with a simple message -- "join me for a 5 day trip to Israel that will open your eyes and change your life as it changed mine." We have seen how this dynamic has worked miracles in Chicago; you will experience the same thing in your communities if you strive to make it happen. Build a new base of significant donors from those 45 and younger. Stop kvetching about how we can't reach them and make the effort. And let's stop the party planning (e.g., Tribefest -- "we're going to Las Vegas") and get serious.

E-philanthropy and telemarketing and direct mail have critical roles at the prospect and small gift levels but no one should expect that they will take the place, as our friend Steve Selig has put it so well and so directly, of one Jew reaching out to another Jew to help a third Jew. For while the federation world has grown more complex and challenging, it's about tikkun olam, about building community and Jewish identity. But it's also about hard work and the joy of doing mitzvot.

There are those who have articulated in Comments on these pages that the federations are dead, they just don't know it yet. Gary Rosenblatt, the brilliant editor of The Jewish Week, summed up his time at the GA with this: " appears (that JFNA)...regained some good will and relevancy (that) can resonate for a year." That optimistic I'm not but I am reminded of the story about two youngsters brought to a closed room. They open the door and find the room filled with manure. The boy screams "I'm not going in there, it's manure everywhere." The girl dives into the manure and starts shoveling it out smiling: "I know there's a pony in here somewhere."

Optimists believe with me that we'll find the pony when we rediscover ourselves; the pessimists believe that federations can no longer compete so they do Heroes and #ish and believe that a Day of Service in New Orleans is somehow an example of our "collective strength" and ignore what is right in front of them: Torah, our real strengths, our great history and present and potential for the future and our incredible capacity for good.



Anonymous said...


I'm flattered that you quoted me, and reading this post got me thinking more about the issue of attracting new donors. It feels like JFNA and federations are trapped in a 'Field of Dreams' mentality. The prevailing attitude is that of "if we build it they will come." The problem of course is that what 'we' (federations) are building 'they' aren't interested in coming to. Programs are launched without much stakeholer input and thus doomed to fail. The programs that succeed, thus drawing in new donors et al, are the ones that they build and we support.

If that option isn't desirable, federations can always borrow from Glenn Beck and just tell people what they should think/want until they believe it themselves. Although I'm not sure we want our federations operating with a Beck-ian mentality.

Still anonymous

paul jeser said...

Anonymous may not like Beck, but hopefully understands that Beck is a strong supporter of Israel, at a time that we need all the support wee can get. And, anyone who hates Soros (as Beck does) must be a good guy, warts and all....

As to anonymous' main point, the FEDS still don't get it. Donors do not want 'general, annual, big hole' campaigns. Donors do not want others to decide how their contributions should be spend. Once the FEDS understand these new realities then they may start thinking about how they can rebuild their system.

RWEX said...


First, Beck is an uninformed fool. We'll discuss him at another time.

Today, donors continue to contribute over $800,000,000 to unrestricted federation annual campaigns; thus, the issue is how to motivate more donors to contribute more. Compare $800,000,000 to nthe amount raised by, e.g., Shaare Zedek Hospital, and one can understand the magnitude of achievement. The use of phrases like "black hole" or "big hole" to describe those campaigns doesn't advance the ball.

We know your philosophy, your vision, as well as mine from these pages. Please help us find a better way.

Anonymous said...

Paul Jeser wants to defend Glen Beck?! Sheesh. So much for your credibility, Paul.

I don't agree very often with Richard, but I do here, Glenn Beck IS an "uninformed fool" who has been entirely detrimental to the political discourse of THIS country.

...not to mention that he doesn't even have the strength of his supposed convictions. Like Rush, Beck is a showman who has adopted a persona in order to make money, money, money. patriot, my ass.

paul jeser said...

I didn't defend Beck nor am I a fan. I just believe that his attack on Soros, as 'overbored' as it was (no surprise), does not negate the fact that he is a strong supporter of Israel, stronger than many in our Jewish Community. One may consider him an 'uniformed fool' - but he is much less dangerous than Soros....

Richard - the fact that, as you wrote, the number of donors has dropped from 1.2million to @400,000speaks for itself. I have tried to help 'find a better way'.

My 'vision' may not be the right one, but, so far, I do not thnik there are any other real solutions being presented. Criticizing the JFNA, although appropriate, is not an answer. FEDS (Orl, Phoenix) falling apart is not the answer. "What is your ISH" is not the answer. Why aren't others sharing visions? Why isn't there a real dialogue between FED leaders, JFNA leaders, Pros, 'Thinkers'?

Anonymous said...

Others (perhaps 700k former donors or current non donors)aren't offering other ideas because they haven't been brought into the system and won't be. It is not their responsibility to save the system. They have other things to do and places to donate. Those that have the responsibility to save the system are sitting in the local offices along with their local lay leadership who often are so insular they are only speaking to themselves. As RW has pointed out time and again, they are not doing their job and accepting their responsibility. Every effort at outreach will fail in saving the system until JFNA turns its effort to "inreach."

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1 here again:

This whole conversation makes me think about what Franklin Roosevelt said when he was convincing the US about the importance of the Lend Lease Act. At a time when many American's did not want the US to fight in Europe, the president reminded the country that when your neighbor is in trouble you act first and don't haggle over the details. What does this have to do with us/Federations?

During Operation Exodus (et al), we as a community took the responsibility for acting. The federation movement explained the urgency and in time summoned up the resources to cover those costs. They explained the urgency in meaningful and compelling ways that spurred donor action...the federations made it clear why they were relevant.

Today's issues are the same, metaphorically speaking there are Jews around the world who's homes are burning down (FSU- elderly going hungry, Iran and other places- anti-Semitism, etc). Federations need to educate the Jewish community how they can help set out these fires as one body. If JFNA and federations don't want to set out the fires or be relevant to Jewish needs any longer that's fine, but if that's the case they can't complain about losing donors and should simply shut their doors. If they want to take the responsibility, they need to take it upon themselves to motivate our community to give and act, ala FDR.