Monday, January 9, 2012


With many of you I received one of those JFNA e-vites that have become so ubiquitous. This one was addressed to Calling All NYL Young Leadership Alumni. Like many of you, I'm certain we had no idea what the NYL was or is. (I'm pretty sure these "branders" didn't really mean the duplicative "National Young Leadership Young Leadership.") Like the JFNA Board Chair, like so many of you, I served with great pride and passion on the UJA National Young Leadership Cabinet -- guess for the band of Jerryites, to call it what it was would be bad for "the JFNA brand." So, while I know we are living through 1984 all over again, I drifted into a  moment of nostalgia.

When the merger created what is today JFNA, the leaders of UJA, CJF and the Large City Federation Executives joined together to elect Charles Bronfman and Joel Tauber as the Board Chair and Chair of the Executive, respectively, of the new entity. Charles was a given -- his enthusiasm for the merger best evidenced by the loan of the President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies of its President, Jeffery Solomon. Jeff, in turn,  steered us through many difficulties to the "success" that emerged. Tauber was greeted with less enthusiasm -- no embrace from Bronfman and, in some minds, a vestige of the predecessor organizations. Many of us in leadership of the merger fought for Joel as one who knew our system as Charles did not. The Large City Execs concurred and so it went. As it turned out, not well. Joel seemed to have forgotten what our system was about and appeared more eager to forget the past than build upon it. By the time their two year terms were over (how did these terms now stretch out to three one year terms remains a mystery), Charles, certainly, had found this leadership experience frustrating -- Joel not so much.

So, why write about this now, you ask? Writing in the Wall Street Journal Daniel Henninger asked, in  another context, if it was time to Bring Back the Smoke-Filled Rooms? Under JFNA's circumstances, the question is both apt and timely. For a long time our national system has selected its Chairs and CEOs in those very "smoke-filled rooms" (sans smoke, of course). Back in the day, the UJA National Chair was selected in a closed process that, over the years, evolved from the selection of a preeminent philanthropist to those more closely connected to the federations. At the Council of Jewish Federations, the "smoke-filled rooms" selection process chose great leaders like Cardin, Goodman and Wishner but, at the end of its days, leaders were trading promises ("elect me this time and I promise we'll elect you next time") for excellence. Having participated in the first few Nominating Committees at JFNA, I can attest that superb candidates were too often rejected out of personal animus on the part of ex officio Committee members or the personal and public (albeit behind closed doors) virulent intervention of a JFNA CEO. The result has been that top leadership of JFNA has become more the captive of a self-perpetuating oligarchy than was ever the case at CJF or UJA.

I have always feared for the system when lay leadership was placed in the hands of the "full-time volunteer" -- that fear is exacerbated when the chief professional lacks systemic experience. The result is and has been a perceptible imbalance in the lay-professional partnership -- a partnership so vital to a successful non-profit enterprise; one that embodies the checks and balances necessary to responsible governance. Where the enterprise is governed by those lacking in well-rounded communal leadership experience, and when the organization's polity is disinterested or self-interested, the organization clearly will be driven here and there distracted too often by shiny new objects in what has been termed "raccoon management." That's what we are and have been experiencing; and we will continue to experience it at a cost of $30.3 million per year.

We're lost, wandering aimlessly, wasting donors' funds 24/6.


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