Thursday, September 19, 2013


This Post is about failure.

Those of you who read this Blog with any regularity know of my sense that the "National Agencies Alliance," created to, among other things, (a) bring more federations into the national funding system, and (b) create more revenue for qualifying national agencies, has accomplished neither goal. But, behind all the "planning" and "replanning" the Alliance has undertaken in lieu of meeting the goals established for it, there rested an unstated motive -- in execution to do exactly the opposite of that with which it had been charged. And, in so doing, JFNA has been uniquely "successful," if "success" is the rebranding of "failure."

Now, following the collapse of JESNA, comes the decision by the Foundation for Culture's Board to shut down.

When asked to explain this decision, official JFNA 'splainer, Joe Berkofsky, told the JTA:
“Jewish arts and culture might fit into those strategic areas, but there are shifting priorities,” Berkofsky said. “The agency is really evaluating organizations and allocating based on their alignment with strategic directions.”
This, after the JFNA 'splainer in chief noted that the "focus" of the "agency" (??) is now on families and children -- does this mean that JCPA is now at risk as well or, perhaps, JTA?  (I did not expect a true investigative report from JTA inasmuch as JTA does receive "full" funding through the Alliance, few questions asked.) The "explanations" are as ridiculous as the decisions.

Earlier this year, the leadership of JESNA, one of the Alliance's most-favored agencies, recommended for full funding year-in and year-out (including this year, the year of its collapse), voted to put itself out of business. At the other end of the funding spectrum, the (National) Foundation for Jewish Culture, one of the founding national agencies in the Alliance, and recently treated as an after-thought, its annual allocation from the Alliance's national funding pool reduced over time from about $700,000 to $180,000" voted to cease operations in 2014, eliminating an umbrella organization for the arts and culture.

These national agencies -- JESNA and the Foundation for Jewish Culture -- were created by the federation system. The Alliance was created to better sustain and nurture those agencies which the federations created; instead, few, if any, JFNA lay leaders know (or seemingly care) about their plight. Though JFNA did place the Alliance Chairs on its Executive Committee, there they sit silent (but for a periodic report) as one national agency after another now falls by the wayside. While JESNA was burning dollars at a rate it could not responsibly sustain, where was the Alliance professional staff? Looking the other way? Too busy with other things -- maybe another strategic plan (or an examination of anti-semitism in Hungary)? Or actually trying to help JESNA find stability? 

And this circumstance -- one that has seen two national agencies created by our system literally abandoned by that same system -- is not about the need for these agencies. Both JESNA and the FJC were continuing to play vital roles in Jewish education, culture and the creative arts. When some of us were on the leadership track at UJA and CJF, our first national Board service was on those Boards (or HIAS or the NCSJ or JTA, or other "agency members" of the Alliance whose funding has been slashed). JFNA has chosen to ignore the chance to populate these organizations' Board, focusing instead on the kind of party exercises  embodied in the waste that is, e.g., Festivus, offering the national agencies nothing more than benign neglect, lip service or constant deprecation depending on the agency, casting them off one at a time, to independent fund raising (which the national funding organizations dating back to the days of CJF were designed to make unnecessary), of which these organizations have proved, at no small expense, to be basically incapable, or to die a slow death of continental organizational asphyxiation.

You might ask why the Alliance continued to fully fund JESNA while that agency was in continued cascading financial distress -- where were the Alliance professionals and lay leadership? Wasn't/isn't one of the prime functions of the Alliance to conduct an annual evaluation of each agency including its financials in detail? Oh, that!!

And it seems fair to ask why, while the national funding pool was in free fall and federations were withdrawing support, those same Alliance professionals and lay leaders were inviting two fine organizations albeit both of which were engaged in competitive fund raising within the federations to join the Alliance, further threatening the already diminished allocations to the system's own national agencies. But, no one at one...seemed to care a whit about what was going on.

The reaction from our organizations was nothing more than a yawn, a "more for us," an ignorance of the implications of losing valued partners, a supercilious response that says so much more about how much less we are as a Continental Jewish polity today than we were at the birth of JFNA. The national agencies are already diminished, the Alliance a dismal failure; and, if the leaders of the Global Planning Table have their way, the fate of our system's national agencies will merely be the appetizer for the main course -- the deconstruction of our core allocations to our system's historic partners, the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee.

Yes, this is not the failure of two agencies alone, it is not the demise of just two agencies, more will follow. And JFNA will neither shed a tear nor accept any responsibility. Ours is a Continental organization that no longer understands its roles and is allowed to behave as if it does not have to. Meanwhile, the millions wasted on, e.g., three TribeFests, that might have been a responsible continental investment in Jewish culture, in Jewish education, in advocacy, in recasting the system's national agencies to best serve the federations' needs and wants -- but..."we don't do that."

I think we all know where responsibility for "failure" rests.



Anonymous said...

This is the way the game ends - not with a bang but a whimper.

Anonymous said...

The Alliance symbolizes all of JFNA's failures in microcosm.

Anonymous said...

No doubt the organization that must be next is JFNA itself.