Saturday, February 8, 2014


Whenever a senior professional leaves his or her position suddenly (unless by death, G-d forbid), the immediate speculation is that the departure was not of the professional's choosing; and, often, the speculation is wrong. The Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund of Greater San Francisco (or whatever it's called) offers a recent example.

For over a decade that community had lacked stability in the office of its chief professional leader. Ever since Sam Salkin, an excellent professional leader, left the CEO position in the early 2000s, San Francisco ran a revolving door in its executive suite, with the brilliant endowment guru, Phyllis Cook, periodically (but with some regularity) stepping into an interim CEO role; Tom Dine after a successful career leading Aipac, lasted a little over one year in San Francisco, followed by Daniel Sokatch, who saw greener pastures at the New Israel Fund, after, as I recall, less than 12 months.  After a lengthy search the community turned to Jennifer Gorovitz.

Gorovitz was the first woman to professionally lead a Large City Federation when she took that position in San Francisco 2010 (after a brief period as Interim CEO); promoted from the Endowment Fund. From her public bio and her retirement statements, she was quite proud of that fact alone. If nothing else, she brought needed stability to a position that cried out for exactly that. 

This Federation's Annual Campaign has remained far below its potential for years. The Annual Campaign numbers -- both dollars and donors -- continues to wallow in mediocrity. This appeared to be related to both an historic emphasis on the Endowment -- the corpus of which grew from wonderful Jewish donors while the distributions when I last looked were over 70% to secular causes -- paired with an Annual Campaign built on designated giving. (One of the CEOs walked me back to The Four Seasons Hotel one night after we had dinner together and discussed the Jewish World. As we stood on Market Street, he told me that "a number of our donors and Board Members live in the residences here." "They should be a great base for your campaign," I noted. "They're not," he said with a shrug. Enough said.)

There were few indications before her abrupt retirement that Jennifer had tired of the challenges of leading a community through change, in particular one of historic underachievement compared with communal capacity, even though she was so transparently underpaid. At the top of the community organization chart, she had hired a new COO, a new Chief Development Officer and a new CFO, all within the last two years, all superb professionals, offering the community the promise of a better future. And, now, out of the blue, she will leave that senior staff hanging out to dry while she eagerly returns to the "excitement" of a trusts and estates law practice?? While the move makes no sense in the context of the sacred work which Jennifer led in greater San Francisco, it happened, and the reasons are hers and her lay leadership. 

Jennifer Gorovitz was the lowest paid of all of the Large City Executives. Her compensation was insultingly low even in comparison to what she will earn, for example, as an experienced trusts and estates lawyer. It may be that after five years of dealing with her lay leadership, who had to be aware of how shockingly inadequate, on a comparative and absolute basis, was her annual pay, Gorovitz had had enough given the 24/7 of the challenges and responsibilities Jennifer confronted. Certainly no one at JFNA would have thought to mentor San Francisco's lay leaders in the meaning of the lay-professional partnership; was anyone at JFNA even privy to any issues that might have predicted this result? OK, it would probably have made no difference.

At the end of the day, Jennifer Gorovitz made a strictly personal decision. We may never learn the reasons for it but we respect it for it is as difficult to say I am stepping away as it is to accept the responsibility in the first place, maybe harder. But an Anonymous Comment on these pages this week should make all of us reflect on a system gone terribly wrong:
"The disrespect for federation professionals is rampant. It's not, on the whole, a disrespect manifested via mean or discourteous behavior (although it is implicitly discourteous). Lay "leaders" think they can do all federation jobs, from CEO to marketing director and beyond. Professionals are glorified clerks and messengers, checking in, getting approvals on various operational items like invitations, colors and name tags, navigating egos, styles and personalities.
 Micromanagement is widespread and paralyzing. Individual federations and the system as an entirety are unable to focus on identifying doable priorities and apply sustained effort to achieve priority objectives. Lay "leaders" from board members to various committee members fail to restrain themselves. The ensuing cacophony of voices is shrill, unfocused, contradictory and distracting noise that simply adds to the already significant challenges facing an American Jewish community in the midst of significant changes.
 Actually all the noise prevents addressing with real focus and energy the real challenges we face. Professionals who've been around (and aren't the Big Shots you mention) rapidly conclude there's no way out and certainly no reward for thoughtfully bold and focused decisions. Too many meetings, too many people (and seemingly never enough) needed for the elusive and actionable "buy in." 
Should federations hire from within? Not necessarily. But at the same time, the trend toward outside hires is a strong indication that something is wrong.
 Federations need governance and the strategic direction and overall (and CEO) evaluation that along with fiduciary oversight are fundamental responsibilities of a governing board.
But they should stick to their job. In fact, if they got the strategic part right maybe our federations and the entire system wouldn't be so adrift right now. There are many necessary roles to play. We need to define and respect the roles, lay and professional, played and let lay and pros play their role without interference and excessive process."
These conclusions may not be true of every place, of every community. But it's out there, isn't it. It's all so very sad. It's gone so very badly.



Anonymous said...

Why take the position in the first place if you know you are being vastly under-compensated?

RWEX said...

Dan Brown has left a new comment on your post "BEYOND UNDERSTANDING":

It is a shame that the above anonymous does not understand people accept specific positions for many reasons - compensation is often not the #1 driver.