Saturday, June 27, 2015


We have chronicled on these pages the daily, weekly, monthly, annual JFNA follies; the reality that after more than a decade and one-half we have almost nothing to show for an expenditure of close to $800,000,000 of our donors', our communities' precious funds. It's a disgrace. I have wasted my time and yours not only chronicling the circus but urging, demanding that those who have been elected as JFNA's leaders effect the changes necessary to make of the futile JFNA a functioning organization. That hasn't worked. It is long past time to start over.

One of you, an insightful communal leader, recently wrote to us:
"To me there appears to be an interesting and seriously unfortunate result from the lack of JFNA advocacy and support of Israel. The observation is not based on research, only intuition. Because JFNA does not advocate for Israel, federations either aren't pushing overseas to their donors or can't as easily go to their donors and ask for increased donations because of the overseas needs. The result seems to be a very large decline in numbers of donors yet campaigns are about the same in total, hovering around $900 mil or so. Yes, this may be a decline from historic highs, but it certainly is not the 50%-60% reduction that is the decline in numbers of doors. Probably this is due to the old time donors who understood the importance of overseas partners and the critical nature of their work continuing to give and to give more than ever before per capita. At the same time we observe what appears to be a drastic rise in dollars raised and numbers of donors to other Israeli organizations, including hospitals, universities, and other worthy charities. One can only assume that these organizations have stepped into the cracks and captured disenfranchised donors to federations thanks to JFNA."

And, then, another Commentator:
" I believe this is exactly the discussion that needs to happen and I applaud the respondents for their thoughtfulness in reply. The basic questions begging debate and conversation are in my mind: What is and should be the Israel agenda of Federations and is it donor and market sustainable? How should we define our philanthropic relationship to other diaspora communities? Locally, have we met our responsibilities in giving our local communities the best modern day infrastructure of caring and inclusive services they deserve? Do we populate our boards and staff our efforts with people who are motivated by these concerns and have understanding of and empathy for the populations we claim to serve?" 
And this is but one symptom of the cancer that has metastasized within JFNA, an organization created and historically, until the last ten years, committed to "more dollars and more donors."

And, from another of you:
"Facing a basic truth: The glue that held the Federation movement together was oversea, mostly Israel centered, needs and the needs of Jews in distress wherever they may be. Continuity programs might resonate with social engineering foundations but are not considered "tzedakah" by the average Jew. Day Schools have been a failure in terms of non-orthodox market and are dubious financial risks for parents and supporters. The tragedy is that the Israel agenda to address social gaps has yet to be addressed and human services at home are step children of our allocations processes. A return to basics with some 21st century upgrades is the path not yet taken."
And, even a thoughtful contrarian view of our system:
"Thoughtful question and thoughtful and impassioned suggestionI have a different take. Not saying it's right or even what I'd like to see happen.

It's time to understand and accept that the federation system isn't needed any more, at least not at the same scale as it's been. Thankfully, we don't face the same problems and challenges as we did decades ago, and the challenges that exist are nowhere near as compelling or unifying (to say nothing of our total freedom to connect, live, join, marry, donate, learn, work anywhere and anyone we want). 

Yes we have slogans like "better together," "the strength of a people, the power of a community" etc, but to the degree these are even compelling concepts to many people, folks are finding these slogans come alive for them through other mechanisms (organizations, causes, etc). We assume that these slogans mean one thing: Federation.

It's easy to find a cause you like and donate to it -- in fact just about every federation beneficiary, local or overseas, is doing just that and so obviously are many donors.

The continuity agenda, as mentioned by a prior commentator, is not compelling to many as tzedakah. It seems to be the province of the wealthy and foundation types (sometimes one and the same), rabbis and federation types-- this isn't a criticism.  

For many, social gaps in Israel are more or less compelling than social gaps in the U.S. If you're into Israel maybe more so. If you're not, then less so. For many, it's the job of the government to address these gaps-- we all know that charity alone can't come close to solving them. Gone are the days of tiny, struggling Israel looking to erect tent cities for new immigrants etc.

If federations indeed reflect what "the community" wants (and I'm not sure who/what "the community" means today -- seems largely self proclaimed), then we'd best decide what that is and go do it. That means making decisions and executing. Demonstrating impact that is directly attributable to federation and/or partnerships that enable federations to demonstrate its distinct and compelling value added.

I'm sure there's more than one "right" approach. It's time to pick one and do it. Let's be realistic about it's market potential and scope. Trying to recapture the past because we remember the glory is a mirage."
To this writer, it's time to debate and discuss the "'right' approach." Yet, we lack the venue to do so. That venue should be found at 25 Broadway but its leaders are so fearful of just the kind of open discussion that the Comments above represent.

And, JFNA does nothing and appears to be unable to do anything to meet the basic needs of our federations and those of our People most in need. Again and again and again, JFNA has failed us. One "special initiative" after another -- failed; one "special ask" after another -- failed. Now, an operational "Education Unit" arises in the ashes of a JFNA that has no ability to "operate" it. To induce a well-meaning leader to take on the moribund role of National Campaign Chair, that leader's personal "Business Plan" for Campaign (which is based as much on hope and guesswork as anything else) appears to have been inserted in haec verba into the 2015-2016 JFNA Budget  doubling the budget for Major Gifts to over $7 million without a prayer of achieving the modest "goals" JFNA has set for itself absent a significant and experienced FRD staff, something JFNA is totally lacking. 

So where is the debate that these Commentators -- you -- and I believe must take place going to take place? JFNA appears unwilling to convene any real, open debate -- part of the reason clearly anchored in the core belief of a number of the LCE that the only great ideas are the ones hatched by them; all other ideas end up either suppressed or "we'll look into that" (and then suppressed). Suppressed unless, as we have pointed out on these pages, lay leaders are able to convince their professional partners that these ideas are really those of the professionals -- not an easy task. Had the Global Planning Table actually dedicated itself to the debate of ideas rather than the dictation of outcomes, that could have been the place, but that was never its leaders' intent. Were CEO "I-Can't-Formulate-A-Decent-Idea" a leader worthy of his compensation, he could push the organization toward meaningful debate -- but he isn't and can't.

I am guessing but I sense that some of this debate has been framed by Federation CEOs on their annual Retreats, in their "chat rooms" and at their meetings. Then...nothing further. But, one can dream -- dream that Eric Goldstein, the current President and CEO at the New York UJA-Federation, coming from the lay ranks where he was a major donor, may actually take a look behind the black curtain and discover that there is no "wizard" back there...just Jerry. And, then do something about it.

So...where? When? Can Richard Sandler, Jay Sanderson and Eric Goldstein lead us to do what needs to be done, leading the federations in the reformation, refocus and restructuring of JFNA; something we had hoped Michael Siegal would have proved capable of -- until Michael decided he would preside over three years of further back-sliding and deconstruction? 

We'll know soon enough.



Anonymous said...

The people that could get us back on track are folks like David Brown (if he understands that he is in charge of staff and not the other way around) and just about anyone else that comes from Chicago (which is probably the best model of a collective community we have). The current and past UIA lay people also know what needs to be done and should be empiwered by JFNA to enable them to do it instead of trying shut them up and push them out.
Hopefully Richard Sandler will care enough to really take charge and put a stop to the way his staff has been serving its own agendas rather than leading us to become the strong collective community we once were and return Israel and the Jewish People to their rightful place as the centerpiece of our campaign and of everything that we do.
Let's stop being just another charity and get back to the tasks of communal nation building and Jewish Peoplehood - and the sooner the better!

Anonymous said...

The above referenced quotes in your posting illustrate a basic truth: There are those who think and there are those with power. Those that have power do not think and those who think have no power,

Anonymous said...

Chicagoans are not ever going to be part of the solution -- whether it is David Brown or anyone else as long as Steve Nasatir sits on his hands and continues to button his lip. Certainly Richard Wexler can't effect change as this Blog has eliminated any influence he once might have had. David Brown could have some influence for change were he to stop running for higher office and look around at how bad things are and do something about it. But until the powers that be understand that they are destroying the institution they were elected to lead, there will only be the continuing ostracizing and worse of any and all who urge change.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to you and those who commented for some excellent suggestions but, Rich, you must know that this leadership is committed to doing nothing presenting nothing as something and patting themselves on the back. JFNA has become so irrelevant that Obama invited Daroff (who then assures that Silverman is included) out of habit not out of necessity. You are tight, we miss Shoshana so badly -- we even miss you!!

Anonymous said...

As the author of the "contrarian" views, allow me to clarify. I don't see it as contrarian at all. Personally, I believe in the collective approach and in the power of collective impact. It'd be great if the heyday of yesteryear was still salient. But it's not, and the numbers tell the tale. Federation share of the total Jewish philanthropy is smaller and we all know that total donors has been shrinking. Sure some communities are seeing modest increases on their fundraising (compared to last year!). And to be sure these increases are impressive considering the market conditions. But do these increases reflect net increase in donors? Which donors are the increases coming from and is that sustainable?

There was a day when the collective impact on a community-wide basis and approach was understood without specific details on impact and claiming organizational credit tied to the collective fundraising and allocations process. But these days? Not so much. Just check out this "Why Federation" video produced by JFNA ( The video even admits that how federations do their business is "tricky."

Part of why it's tricky is that a. federation beneficiaries are competing with federation on fundraising; their marketing messages have to offer compelling reasons to give directly -- with the implied result clouding federations' case for giving; b. The messaging is very general and designed to satisfy a broad consensus that basically understood and shared the generalities. It didn't need more. But today the general lack urgency and impact; c. As the video indicates, the all volunteer allocations process (is that a strength these days?, but that's an aside) supports governance and finance and admin. YAWN. (yes, i know it said Program too -- also not terribly specific). Yes, these are important but usually reserved for more sophisticated donors appreciate capacity-building.

I get that this is a "what is federation" video and not a campaign video. But if "what is federation" is who we are, and who we are is b-o-r-i-n-g, then we have to either a. recognize that federation is less a mass movement (chuckling permitted) and more oriented to a specific more sophisticated donor profile; or b. explain what federation does in a way that pops, and leave in our dust those who protest.


Anonymous said...


There are reasons aipac and jnf have eclipsed jfna. Aipac is single issue and has pounded home what its mission and value added is. Aipac has an enduring and deeply committed belief that it is as important to the US-Israel relationship as are the two countries! It's single-minded and focused. JNF has chapters but unlike the federation system, these chapters are wholly owned by JNF. There's a singular corporate mission and message.

I'm not suggesting JFNA/federations become single issue or change to become a singular corporate structure. But the attributes around the aipac and jnf approaches are critical if jfna and federations are to succeed. And it's first and foremost to determine with as much specificity and urgency who we are, why we are, what we do, and how we do it and communicate it. If it means moving on from existing funding and funder relationships, so be it. It may hurt at first but in the end it will serve us better. It will provide definition in the marketplace and help us communicate with compelling specificity how year-over-year powerful impacts are achieve because of what we do.

This is what a board is supposed to do.

Why doesn't this happen? Why does nothing happen? Because organizing is hard and risky. Nobody with credibility wants to put their professional or lay career on the line. Who wants to take on the establishment? The Ceos make a nice paycheck. Their boards didn't hire them to fix the system. And of they want to move up in the system, work in another Jewish organization or serve it as a consultant, challenging the system is self destructive. And the lay people? They love hobnobbing, traveling and having nice titles. Within their small circles they actually think they are leaders of importance. Open your mouth and you can expect to be vilified, dismissed and belittled.

Being a real leader is hard. We call all of these folks, ceos and board members, leaders. Heck we're willing to call anyone who shows up a leader. By any measure they fall sadly, and for our system and people ominously, short.

RWEX said...

I again and as always thank those of you who have taken the time to reflect on not just the current sad circumstances of our do-nothing JFNA leadership but to offer your excellent insights and suggestions of how to "make the situation better." Sadly, when you have that "leadership" who have convinced themselves that "all is well," it's like an alcoholic who cannot admit to the disease, nothing will change.