Saturday, May 28, 2011


Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a land called UJA the United Jewish Appeal brought together what became known as the Mega-Donor Group. The effort was chaired by immediate past Chair of the UJA Board, the incredible Marvin Lender, a mega-contributor himself, Max Fisher, z'l, our remarkable and indefatigable patriarch of Jewish communal life, and Brian Lurie, then the UJA CEO, one of the most creative professional leaders in our history.

Building on their participation in the leadership and inspiration of Operation Exodus, these million dollar donors came together, "elected" Charles Bronfman and Les Wexner as Co-Chairs, effectively asked Brian Lurie to leave, and met periodically to discuss among themselves philanthropic projects in which they were personally interested, often joining together in coalitions of the willing with varying membership. At one time, I recall, Max invited Bob Aronson, then the Detroit Federation CEO, to present to the group but it was a rare moment when the federation system was the focus (or even mentioned?). The Mega-Group eventually "dissolved" and the participants generally went off in their own philanthropic directions.

At the insistence of, at the least, the Chicago and New York Federations, starting about four years ago JFNA committed itself to recreating the Mega-Donors Group albeit in a rebranded fashion. Howard Rieger committed to staffing the effort, Co-Chairs were recruited from among the great philanthropists in Chicago and NYC...and,of course, nothing happened. Fast forward to 2010, when Jerry Silverman agreed to lead the recruitment effort. Paul Kane was engaged by JFNA, at least in part, because his New York experience brought him into contact with any number of million dollar donors -- there is as we know a diffference between "contact" and engagement. I assume that philanthropist Dan Ochs, currently the Chair of Birthright Israel, agreed to Co-Chair the nascent effort at the urging of his great friend, the late Itzik Shavut, z"l.

But, at no time did JFNA examine the history of the UJA Mega-Donors effort to learn from it. This is their style -- if a book has already been written, they aren't even going to look at the Table of Contents. After all, they always know better and history is always to be disregarded. So JFNA has attempted to make contact with a group of mega-donors, inviting them to an initial meeting, the subject of which would include...federation and JFNA. Rather than allowing the "group" to come together and identify issues and concerns relevant to them, JFNA would dictate an agenda that may or may not be. And, from what I have learned, this dictation method has turned off any number of them; many of whom will not "waste their time."

In the UJA era, there was, in place, a body of mega-donors around whom the effort could be built. Today, in the JFNA "era," those lay leaders who have access to the most significant donors around the Continent, have either become disenchanted, disenfranchised or tossed aside. This has led to JFNA professionals pleading with federation CEOs to recruit mega-donors from within their federation boundaries to a meeting in New York in which these federation CEOs have played no part and in which they will play no part. This is a curious circumstance only to those who have not had any prior experience with the monarchy.

History tells us that putting together this unique group of leaders is extremely difficult even when a strong organization of strong leaders is calling the group together. Today's JFNA, lacking any credibility, and basically "unled," hasn't a prayer.



paul jeser said...

Most 'mega-donors' are no longer interested in the Federation system for reasons pointed out many itmes.

Right now, I'd guess that the 'mega-donors' are much more connected to the JFN than the Fed system.

If the federation system understands this it will change.

LisaB said...

Agree with Paul. Plenty of Mega Doners give paltry 5 figure sums to Federations while happily handing out millions like candy to pet projects where they can dictate the terms.

Part of the problem with younger ones is of course that they weren't engaged in the community before they made their millions and so why should they favor it now?

Anonymous said...

We in the federation movement can beat ourselves up all we want on this issue and perhaps even with some justification. However that will not excuse the boorishness of too many of today's mega donors, the arrogance of their foundation staff and the absence of consideration either show to a public Jewish communal agenda beyond their own private concerns. What better testimony that in two years they have yet to even throw a meaningful philanthropic bone to "their boy" Jerry.