Sunday, March 8, 2015


In an Anonymous Comment to the recent JAFI CIRCLES THE DRAIN Posts, a well-meaning correspondent suggested the title to this Post when he/she wrote:
"Please, everybody! While we can all agree that those calling the shots are not in every case the right folks, we need to also agree that there are institutional and structural issues that lead us to serial boo-boos and disasters. A little less focus on dishing complicit colleagues and more appreciation of our institutional cultural failings would, IMHO, be a more productive and, yes, civil way to proceed."
While I object to the sense that speaking truths can be called "dishing" or dissing, and I would applaud a broad and civil dialogue, could I convene such I would do so -- readers know that I and those within our system, such as it is, having been asking for just that for years to no avail. And, of course, the world would be such a better place, wouldn't it if we all could "just be friends." And, in fact, that desire may be the very reason that our organizations -- international, continental and local -- are in such horrible, horrible condition today. We are so ready to ignore the "serial boo-boos (seriously, who writes like this) and disasters" that we perpetuate, even encourage, them. 

In the interest of sh'lom bayit we are constantly told to shut up and "join the team" and, if not, lech l'azazel. At the very core of the corrupt practices that we see splayed across the pages of JTA, The Forward and The Jewish Week, is this attitude of "hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil." We are in the era in which a tyranny of silence reigns supreme. Speaking out, dissenting, seeking debate, uh uh. The mere thought of a leadership comprised of a "Team of Rivals" out of the creative tension of which might flow great ideas, are you kidding? 

Friends, those publications which have delved into the truths about the rot that has eroded the trust in our institutions have actually been responsible in a perverse way for the growth of the Federation-owned press in so many of our communities, those "papers" dedicated only to self-promotion and sunshine, never letting truth-telling get in the way if the news might be considered, G-d forbid, "bad" (i.e., "negative"). These sanitized publications, often employing excellent writers, may make the communal or national or continental lay leadership feel great about themselves, but like the green grass in the film Blue Velvet, that thin veneer only hides the vermin and worms eating away underneath -- and, then, only hides that reality for the shortest of times.

I think we all have seen what I would define as dissent putschism -- the often subtle, often less than subtle, removal from leadership ranks of those who fail to stick to the script, raise questions, stray from the "righteous path," go "off message." You can answer as well as I, perhaps better, whether our institutions, absent any and all dissent, are the better off. I think you know what I think.

What my Anonymous friend quoted above misses is that, in the main, in the vast majority of instances, "our institutional cultural failings" are the direct and clear result of "complicit colleagues" stifling that very dissent that might -- just might -- make our institutions stronger. When dissent is stifled inside the tent, it has no place to go but outside. For some, many of them my friends, the "right path" has been the one of no dissent, no separation of truth from the bulls..t being served daily by those who pass for "leaders" today. And those "leaders" truly believe in the practice of obscurantism to the nth degree, and their "success" in that area is neither to their credit nor to that of JFNA or whatever institution they serve.

Some have convinced themselves that what they are hearing is true and that has served their ambitions well; others know what the truth is but "going along" is just so much easier.

When Dan Brown, the terrific thought leader, sought submissions to his creation ejewishphilanthropy in the hopes of creating a civil dialogue that might lead to transformational change, JFNA and UIA leaders were said to have urged, publicly in some instances, but mainly in the usual silent places, that no one submit a paper. While one brilliant paper emerged from leaders in Houston, even in the public arena of the ejp there was silence, the ever-gaping void. The tyranny of silence reigned; the obscurantists prevailed. When I think of JFNA leadership, I do despair; yes, when I think about Michael Siegal, I think of the words of Gov. Mario Cuomo citing President Bill Clinton: "My job is to get to yes. If I don't get a deal, I get nothing done. If I get nothing done, I am a failure. If the objective is to make a nice speech, it means nothing." Michael, you are the master of the "nice speech," the frequent impassioned Briefing -- you've proved that leadership can equate to nothing.

The incredible philanthropist, Michael Steinhardt, probably known as the most creative and most cantankerous of the mega-donors, often the most generous among all, always willing and able to speak his mind, recently addressed a number of issues to an audience of over 3,000 (a real 3,000, not the JFNA kind), of BBYO/BBG -NFTY and other teen organization reps in convention in Atlanta. Michael addressed many of the issues we have tried to point to -- organizations and leaders who are long past their "use by" dates, leaders who are likewise. He urged these future leaders, including my granddaughter, to act not like so many of the tired, vacuous Jewish leadership of today but instead to act boldly and to "challenge the status quo." He admonished these young people to ignore the criticism which will surely follow the new ideas and initiatives they can create. Oh, were it only to be.

What if Michael Steinhardt challenged his fellow philanthropist Michael Siegal, JFNA Chair, to actually lead; to actually be the agent for transformational change at JFNA. Would Siegal listen? Could Michael Siegal be stirred to lead us through real change after two plus years of just watching the world go by? Of mouthing speeches and attaching his name to Briefings and thinking that those are real accomplishments? But change is what is needed -- Siegal knows it, you know it. Just can't be bothered.



Anonymous said...

As the author of the comment you disparage I apologize for not meeting your standards of clarity, eloquence and proper use of the English language.
So I will expand on my point in simpler terms: Our Federation system is where it is today because our decision making bodies are disempowered shells of their former selves and we thereby fall short in meeting our fiduciary responsibilities of oversight, informed decision making and a commitment to sustained collective discussion on issues of strategic direction and the future of the public institutions of Jewish life. This is an issue not of personalities but of the debasement and failings of our organizational/systemic culture. The Hoffmann's and the Galperin's are but symptoms of our malaise and debating their personal qualities is a distraction.
As a further comment I would say (in response to your gushing tribute to Steinhardt) our future is made all the worse by good people who sincerely yearn for a Lincoln but in actuality will fall prey to a new generation of self-entitled Napoleons (whose contempt for Federations is glaringly public) whether their name is Michael, Charles, Lynn or god forbid Sheldon. And my greatest fear is that the next generation of one percenters will be all the worse.

RWEX said...

Now you have far exceeded my "standards," such as they are. Kal ha'kavod. We may disagree on some important things -- e.g., our need for Steinhardts -- but not on the bottom line. You have expressed it so well.

paul jeser said...

As I wrote a few years ago "In the 50's, 60's and 70's, the major communal organizations were the Federations and their support organizations, the UJA and CJF. They attracted the major donors, leaders and professionals. That world was where all the action happened. It was the place to be.

Outside of the Synagogue world, and as a somewhat educated guess, probably 80%++ of all Jewish giving came through the Federation world. The Israel Education Fund was a quiet way that major gifts could be given through the Federation, not be allocated through the general campaign process, and be designated for special projects in Israel. With that exception most all other charitable giving and allocation was controlled by the Federation.

In the late 1970’s Project Renewal was proposed by the Jewish Agency and accepted by the Federation world. Many voiced reservations; not because the goal was not a wonderful one, but because they felt that once donors had the ability to so specifically designate their gifts (even with the parameters being agreed upon) doors would be opened that could never be closed.

There is a story about an incident that took place in the mid-70's during the discussion most Federations had about supporting Soviet Jewish Refuseniks who came to America (versus only funding those who went to Israel). A major Federation donor and board member, who felt strongly that all Soviet Jews should go to Israel and if they came to America should not be supported, seeing that he was in the very small minority, made the following statement: “I know that in a traditional democracy my position will be defeated, but let me redefine democracy for you: traditional democracy believes that one person has one vote; in my democracy, one dollar equals one vote.” Since his gift was more than all the rest of the Board members collectively, he felt that his position should prevail. Of course it didn't as it should not have. But the lesson was there – he did not want others to decide how to allocate his contribution!

Whether right or wrong, whether good for the community or bad, the fact is that most people, and certainly most – if not all - major donors do not want others to allocate their contributions and certainly do not want to spend time in organizational life.

We are now decades later. The desire and ability to have more control over ones own gift and what Project Renewal began has resulted in the unbelievable growth and strength of dozens (if not hundreds) of niche organizations, hundreds (!) of significant family foundations and the significant weakening of the Federation world.

So – since we all know the problem, what is the solution?

Anonymous said...

I applaud the Blog and its many commentators. There's deep commitment and passion for the good and welfare of the Jewish people and institutions that have served it well for a century.

We have entered a new period. The emerging marketplace does not see a need for these large institutions nor do individuals that make up this marketplace want to subordinate themselves to a consensus process (that yields nothing but expensive, endless chatter).

For the institutions to survive, they have to demonstrate compelling value that is worth trading individual decision-making for group decision-making. (I'm not a JDC groupie, but anyone can see something has been happening there for years!)

Most federations, and certainly JFNA and JAFI, are poster children for group decision-making that isn't compelling, that has very little to show for it other than being a graveyard for innovation and decisiveness and that hardly justifies its cost.

Read today's NYT article about McDonalds. Observe how a very successful brand that has dominated its marketplace has been reduced to cluelessness. People want more healthy (or at least perceived more healthy) more choice, and to feel good about the ingredients. Oh, and products that taste good, within a price point range, and are delivered fast. The marketplace is fragmented, with smaller providers capturing new customers, while perceptions of poor quality and lousy nutritional value shape customers' (especially younger customers) perceptions.

Sound familiar?

We're waiting for organizations that are incapable of change to make something happen. We're waiting for inspiration from organizations incapable of creativity. We're waiting for resolve from organizations with a risk tolerance of zero.

Same burger, same bun. Must be the market place that's stupid.

Anonymous said...

Paul asks a good question and I would reply as follows as it pertains to the reform of foundations:
It's no longer their money. As they took a tax deduction it is now in a trust set up for the communal/public good. Therefore we should:
1. Require a higher payout that would force a spend down of funds over 40-50 years;
2.Monitor and regulate foundation expenses, particularly those related to board and staff travel and reimbursements;
3.Circumscribe the use of foundation funds for political purposes. Tzedakah should by and large be used to address the needs of real people in a reasonable time frame not redefine public priorities. I give my $'s to Federation and a host of direct service agencies and for which I take my tax break. I also support political candidates with no tax benefit accrued to me. One is tzedaka, the other is tzedek chevrati (social justice). Foundations need to understand and be taught the difference.
4. Require a significant number of seats on foundation boards be set aside for individuals with no personal or business relationship with the original donors and who represent, through expertise or involvement, the class of people the foundation purports to serve.
5. Tax wealth not just income which among other social benefits encourages the very wealthy through tax benefits toward increased philanthropic involvement
6.Create a moral Jewish communal climate where engagement on the boards and as donors to communal agencies is the right and democratic way to go for those blessed with great wealth.

Anonymous said...

To the last anonymous: I disagree on several of your points.
1.If the foundation is doing good work why should it be required to spend down the funds? The government already mandates a 5% annual distribution of principle. I would agree, however, that there be some type of periodic re-application of the foundation (perhaps every 25 years) in order to maintain its tax exempt status.
2. The government already does this annually.
3. I was under the impression that to maintain a tax exempt status foundations and not for profits cannot use their funds for political purpose.
4. This suggests that the friends and relatives are less qualified to carry out the wishes and interests of the original donor and that independent board members would not try to be self-serving and push the funds to their organizations instead. Example: A fund is created to serve the poor: who sits on the board to represent the poor?
5. Good luck with that one.
6. We already have the moral Jewish communal climate for tzedakah. It is called the Torah.

Anonymous said...

I do not want to shanghai Richard's blog but a last retort to the chaver who defended foundation practices:
1. A 5% distribution is a lousy deal for the public in terms of the creation of a public good (I got that from the Harvard Business Review not Karl Marx). And anyone who has ever filled out a foundation 990 knows that there are legal loopholes within loopholes in the 5 year average the calculations involved. During the recent recession too many (not all) foundations were obsessed with asset protection and not the real value in helping needy individuals in the here and now. God forbid they should invade principle.
2. You mean like permitting international first class travel for board members?
3. Political advocacy (allowed) is not the same as candidate support (forbidden). Non-profit dollars are thigh deep in politics on both the right and the left. Not Tzedakah in my book.
4. Friends and family? Well is a foundation a public trust or a private club? Perhaps Richard might want to tell us about the rules which govern a supporting foundation at the Chicago Federation which approach some of the spirit and letter of what I advocate for private and family foundations.
5. You got a sad point on the current political impracticality of my suggestion. In a progressive wealth tax system a 1% annual tax would impoverish Sheldon Adelson - as we know, $34.1 Billion doesn't go as far as it used to with hundreds upon hundreds of deserving and needy candidates to support.
6.We agree finally! Torah. So my suggestion to all is to study the laws of Ma'aser kesafim (tithing) one of the oldest charitable tax codes around, and see what qualifies as meeting that obligation and what does not and what deductions one can take from the obligation. Applying those to the US tax code would be a great first step. (Oh, and as a first case study ask whether sending as part of Taglit a Yeshiva student from a wealthy family on her/his second Israel experience qualifies.)

Anonymous said...

Last anon: You sound like a frustrated fundraising professional. It's always easier to spend someone else's money. I am familiar with many funders of foundations and the good work their foundations do. Every one of them preserved principle during the recession precisely so they could re-grow the foundation to do even more good in the future years. Check it out on their IRS forms. During the recession many froze allocations to new organization so they could protect the organizations that were dependent on their grants for their very existence. I have been on many missions with foundation board members who did fly first class. As a federation professional for many I traveled on missions for many years where their expenses were fully paid in some cases in 5 star hotels, and in the 1990's even flying to Israel on the Concord. The results were always increased giving when donors actually saw what their money was doing. Of course federations have rules that may be different from the private foundations. The federations are public trusts. By the way when a donor sets up supporting foundation within a federation the federation places more people on the board of the foundation than the donor does. But as you can imagine the federation still tends to fund those things that are consistent with the wishes of the donor, why, because if they didn't people would not establish supporting foundations within federations. The same rationale applies to donor advised funds for which the federation can actually refuse to make a grant. My guess is that the federation rarely says no. As to the taxing of wealth - where exactly would that tax go and how would it benefit the needy? What would the result be for Adelson - more money to the government an less money to beneficiaries I suppose.

Anonymous said...

The answer to the question posed by the title to your Post, Richard, is a simple one: NO!! If you don't continue to challenge conventional wisdom and the powers that be, who will? Our leaders continue to fail in their jobs; please continue to hold them to the highest standards, please.