Wednesday, July 4, 2012


We live in strange and unusual times...but they aren't the best of times. Many (most??) federations seeking a successor CEO today are looking outside the "system" -- they believe, as JFNA believed, that this represents thinking outside the box. In reality, the "box" today has been turned inside out and those with experience, in particular in raising dollars to meet Jewish needs, are rejected for what appears to be that very reason. 

Sadly, JFNA and its Mandel Center have been active participants in this turning away from experienced communal professionals who might lead federations, and, in many instances, are eminently qualified to do so. And this is nothing new. Back in mid-decade, JFNA's Consulting Services "worked with" consultants in numerous communities on "strategic plans" that moved communities away from the federation model to something vastly different. Look at the results in, e.g., Philadelphia and San Diego, where the federations are in worse than desperate shape (when the then JFNA CEO learned that he was listed as a "resource" in the Philadelphia "plan," he demanded that his name be removed). 

Below is an article appearing in ejewishphilanthropy, written by an experienced national and communal professional whose insights are far better than mine:

"The Times they are a Changing, but for the Better?

by Rabbi Louis Feldstein
Truth be told I don’t know Andrew Rehfeld, the law professor long active as a volunteer in the St. Louis Jewish community, who was just named the chief executive officer and president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. He may in fact be an incredibly talented and skilled individual with a great personality. He may be a deeply committed Jew and Zionist who truly believes in the purpose and need for Federation. He may be the next coming. He may be lots of things, but he is also the most recent sign and symbol of a deeply troubling trend.
Over the past several years more and more of the top local Federation and agency positions have been filled with people whose career trajectory traveled the road of volunteerism – not professional communal service. Is this because more and more committed Jewish professionals have decided they know too much about these jobs and have determined they are just not worth the trouble or headache? Or is it instead a reflection of a far more nefarious perspective – the continued devaluation of the expertise, wisdom and experience that comes from a lifelong commitment to professional Jewish communal service.
If I was the head of any of the academic programs that train communal professionals, or for that matter the programs that offer MBA’s in Nonprofit management I would be worried … very, very worried.
While few of us would ever consider going for medical treatment from a non trained professional, or being represented in court by someone whose training comes from regularly watching Law and Order, there appears to be an overwhelming belief that just because someone was a volunteer in the Jewish communal arena they have what it takes to be a successful professional. The record, in fact appears to be mixed, but the trend continues and raises challenging and perplexing questions.
If one doesn’t need to be trained to be a Jewish communal professional, then why keep such programs alive?
If quality training is imperative then who is training these new hires on the nuances of changing from volunteer to professional?
If “anyone” can do these jobs then are they truly positions of prestige and expertise that warrant such salaries?
These are just a few of the questions that demand consideration and debate.
Change can be good, and perhaps this is a change for the good. Our system clearly needs new thinking and innovative strategies and this may be the kind of seismic shift that propels us forward. If it is not, however, what will be both the short and long term impact to our communal institutions and our communities?
It is time to at least start to seriously study and debate the impact of this direction. It is neither too early nor too late. Now is the time. But, with that said, I wish Mr. Lehfeld only success and may he go from strength to strength. I know he will need it."
For a project I am working on, I happened to look at the list of Large City Executives the other day. The changes have been incredible in just the last two years. And, in each community that has gone in the direction of what was once considered "outside the box," you who live and work there, and who treasure federation, are the ones who can answer, have these changes been for the better? When a community engages as its lead professional, one who has never raised funds, what can the outcome possibly be? When our communities actually hire as CEO one who has never even made a capacity contribution to a Federation campaign, how can that person be entrusted with this leadership role? How can one have answers if they don't even understand the questions? This is not to say that there are not exceptions to the rule, but those exceptions are hard to find.
When JFNA was participating/leading with its consultants, those disastrous "strategic plans," some challenged JFNA's professionals with the thought that it was JFNA's obligation to assert Federation values and the centrality of federation and the annual campaign in these "processes." The response was "...we just do as we're told." ("Oh, and by the way, you're off the Committee.") The infamous "Mandel Executive Development" program was abandoned after two years -- sadly, a debacle, from which the professional leaders of the Program left JFNA (one of them had been a Federation CEO) and only one "graduate" has matriculated to federation CEO. 
Today, the Mandel Center's Executive Search arm, working as JFNA's, would give the same response: "...we just search for what the federations want." Just a simple change in philosophy would require nothing more than a single word change: "...we just search for what the federations need." Of course, this would require an understanding of federations' needs as well as their wants. 


paul jeser said...

As a 40 year member of the JEWISH COMMUNAL SERVICE I find that what has happend to our field to be very demoralizing and destructive.

Anonymous said...

Richard, shouldn't fault be equally shared by the sitting Executives in the communities who have done absolutely nothing to encourage a succession plan that would position and train potential successors? In the one federation where that was done, Baltimore, the results have been wonderfully positive. And, at JFNA, the CEO is so insecure he won't even engage a COO.

Anonymous said...

But the change in Baltimore took place at the beginning of the decade about 10 years ago. What big city federation exec in the last 10 years came out of the system as Rabbi Lou described? I can only think of Washington, Pittsburgh and Detroit. In the last 10 years the following additional federations have had at least one new exec San Francisco, LA, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Palm Beach, South Palm Beach, Montreal, now St. Louis,all from outside the system, I believe.

Anonymous said...

Lou's spot on article has received a respectful reply from the CEO of JFNA in E-Jewish Philanthropy.

Anonymous said...

While I absolutely agree with Lou, I do think there is some underlying tension there that can not be forgotten. Wasn't Lou just "restructured" out of a job in Atlanta by an exec who wasn't from the system?

RWEX said...

That "tension" of which you speculate
does nothing to diminish the import of what Feldstein has written

Anonymous said...

Over the last decade many good professionals have been thrown away, like last year's fashion. Those who survive keep their heads down and are thankful it is not them. Until of course... And we blame the victim because no career is unblemished. And then when a colleague has something thoughtful to say we personalize the comment to distance ourselves not from the comment but from it's author. After all, bad fortune may be contagious. For shame.