Tuesday, September 13, 2016


A federation professional leader and I exchanged thoughts on the sorry state of our communal structure over time to the point we have reached today. He would not want me to use his name but I wish I could inasmuch as his analysis, his perspective have been expressed in sorrow, pain and reality:

"The unraveling of trust of federations is way down the food chain of the causes of our system's ailments.  Several large federations got tired of defending or were unable to successfully articulate the business proposition and communal values underpinning community campaigns.  When their donors designated their gifts the federation itself could no longer defend its own (dwindling) undesignated allocation to traditional partners.  That gave them less voice with those partners and things spiraled into a mutual irrelevance.  And now because of designated donor and (smaller) Federation grants, federations have become irrelevant.   Irrelevance is the presenting ailment.  To be sure, lack of trust of its ability to deliver on things large and small has grown which in turn of course exacerbates the irelevance problem.

1) Stop believing in your unique product and articulating its philanthropic values and business value added.

2) Become irrelevant to donor and agencies alike.  (By the way, if Donor A loves the JCC or Hillel, why does donor or agency need federation?)

3) Community recognizes Federation can't do big, important things well...Irrelevance and  trust are married."
The analysis is, unfortunately, spot on. The reality presented evolved over time, beginning with the first check for a designated gift, to the encouragement of designated giving by the leaders of the Council of Jewish Federations in its last years, right down to today. All of us should recall the JFNA-endorsed, totally failed "Signature Initiatives" which formally announced the continental entity's "walk away" from collective action to the easy path of "coalitions of the willing" which to JFNA proved to be "no coalitions of the unwilling." Rather than dwell on that history, let's think about how our communities might reassert their relevance, if that is even possible.

It would be nice, of course, if we had a living, breathing continental organization with a professional leadership that even understood the problem...but we don't...and it looks as if we never will. JFNA has become nothing more than a very expensive trade organization...and that appears to be enough to its leaders. JFNA can claim it's relevant -- invites to the White House, quarterly meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister, appointments to the Jewish Agency Board would probably be the validation points -- but it is JFNA's work that has become irrelevant; except as a trade association. 

My correspondent above continued with a dystopian view:
"JFNA, like JCPA, whatever their internal dysfunctions – and every group has their share – is beset first and foremost by being an umbrella body composed of weak shareholders. And rather than reinvesting, they want to sell their shares.  They are reluctant investors, not partners. They don’t value the products offered and they have less and less discretionary money to invest overall….so JFNA is a really unwelcomed tax. Moreover, the shareholders (Federations) want dividends paid in diametrically opposed ways.    They – the national -- are forced in every case into a zero sum equation.  What satisfies Chicago pisses off San Francisco (and what pleases New York) is ignored by Boston, and vice versa.

It is very hard for a national to parachute in and alter the now-established traditions (designated giving, abandoning the national and international collective) in local communities.  In this paradigm I can only imagine that rather than being viewed as mischpacha, a JFNA appeal is heard no differently than one would be coming from JNF, AJC, Hebrew U, The Israel Project.

I’ve spent lots of time diagnosing what ails our systems.  I’ve spent an equal time thinking of prescriptions…..to no avail.

Bottom line is JFNA (even a much better JFNA) embodies to too many communities what Harley Davidson does to me: they may well have the best marketing, the best bikes, the best prices…it just doesn’t matter.  I’m not buying.  It’s irrelevant.  My life is just fine without out and I don’t seek what you tell me is missing from my life."
Dystopian and, of course, total reality,

So, absent a proactive, relevant continental organization, it remains up to the federations themselves to examine how their own relevance might be restored.

And, how might that happen? Given that the Federations, you remember, the owners of JFNA, apparently see no hope of or have no interest in effecting the requisite changes at 25 Broadway; the only way to strike a new direction appears to be for the most responsible of communities to organize among themselves. The focus should be on a continental meeting driven by those communities which have yet to become irrelevant -- let me suggest that, among others, those would be Miami, Chicago, New York, Houston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Nashville, Rochester, Los Angeles and others. All federation chief volunteer and chief professional officers would be invitees. The program for that conclave -- let's call it "Oak Brook II" (reflecting back to the continental meeting that framed what JFNA was supposed to become) -- would be developed by a federation-led Steering Committee around the topic "Reasserting Relevance" or something similar. And, then, let the chips fall where they may.

These are times that cry out for a Jerry Bubis, z'l, or Rabbi Herb Friedman, z'l, for a Michael Steinhart or a Charles Bronfman. Instead...and this is not to say that JFNA's Board Chair could not lead this, but he first has to realize that all is not well...we can only hope that a Goldstein, a Nasatir, a Hoffman, a Sanderson might stand up and shout: "ENOUGH" -- but we have been hoping for that forever it seems.

I am certainly not Diogenes on some eternal quest for an honest person -- that's not me. I am just a commentator looking for a few good men and women with the courage to admit what we have just isn't working paired with the courage to go public in a demand for change.

What do you think?



Anonymous said...

No doubt that the Federations you mentioned (Miami, Chicago, New York, Houston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Nashville, Rochester, Los Angeles) are, among others, quality Federations. Are they devoid of designated gifts?

Anonymous said...

Richard, the writer's commentary was spot on. the collective agenda has been watered down to be basically meaningless. it would have to be a strong, seasoned, politically astute professional leader to put what could be considered a value add national organization back on a path of worth. Not a fancy populous name or an accomplished business person or academic or whatever but an individual who understands and embraces federation's mission, vision and values. this pro would have to be accompanied by a volunteer leadership cadre of the same. as a volunteer who has attended many a meeting and knows a bit about how communities function or not, here is where you lose my attention and where your credibility comes into question. in some case, you give examples of leaders, individuals and communities, who are the very problem that you identify. either clinging to old, tired notions or promotion of the idea de jour that rejects the very principles which you deem important. not to disparage any one pro or community, but if you are going to claim a standard, please reflect on the qualifications for your list. this is not something insignificant. in conclusion, i know you to be a well meaning, intelligent person who possesses leadership quality. as we approach a new year, resolve to quit the blogging/complaining and act. do your homework, build a coalition, initiate movement, do good for the jewish people. it will take you and people like you to get us to where we need to be. i would help but way too old and way too tired. thanks for promoting the conversation but time to act. next year in jerusalem.

paul jeser said...

I also agree (with great sadness) with the anonymous correspondent’s analysis with three additional comments:

1) Designated giving within the Federation movement really began with the JAFI’s (through the UJA) Project Renewal (in the early 1980s I think). Once donors developed personal and direct relationships with their projects in Israel there was no turning back.

2) The fact that most of those who comment wish to remain anonymous is part of the problem. Unless and until those who wish for change are willing to go public (like Richard) there will be no change.

3) There IS an important role for today’s Federation – but, not a direct fundraising role. I shared a vision many years ago which gained no traction then. Maybe with the horrible current situation it may be time to look at this vision again. In a nutshell I wrote:
My vision – or at least the beginning of a concept: We need a totally new communal structure.
(If you want to read my full ‘paper’, Richard was kind enough to carry it over 6 years ago: http://ujtheeandme.blogspot.com/2010/07/federations-are-deadthe-jeser-approach.html)

1) The Federation should no longer raise funds to directly allocate to other institutions, agencies or programs.

Thus it will not be seen as a competitor.

This is the key.

Once the Federation is no longer an advocate for any specific organization, agency or program, it can become the ‘honest-broker’ for the donors and agencies and the effective organization the community needs.

2) The Federation should be the communal organization whose responsibility it is to:
--Serve as a resource for all organizations in the areas of fundraising, leadership, staff development and management.

--Serve as a resource for all donors and provide ‘fair and balanced’ (sorry FNC) information about all programs and projects needing funding.

--Serve as the place where all organizational leaders meet to discuss the issues – not necessarily to force a consensus but to allow for open discussion in a neutral environment.

--Serve as a true ‘community relations committee/council’ in developing relationships between the Jewish and non-Jewish community and even within the Jewish community.

--Serve as the community-wide outreach organization to motivate those not involved to become involved and assist them in developing their own paths.

--Convene the community in times of crises or special need. Play the major role in the development and coordination of community action, programs, and responses.

3) Federation leadership should include the top local leadership (lay and pro) of all communal organizations and, as importantly, the top donors (who may be much more willing to serve in this new institution than in what we now currently have).

4) Funding for this ‘new’ Federation will have to come from the cadre of communal donors who, if they buy in to the new concept, will see this new structure as a benefit to all, not as a waste of time and money.

5) This vision does not see the need for the JFNA since the JAFI and the JDC will, as all other organizations, raise funds directly in the community. This vision does see the necessity for an organization much the same as the CJF was – a national umbrella resource for all communities.

This is drastic surgery for the community. However, without it, or something close to it, we will continue to see the diminution of the one community organization/structure that is so needed.

Anonymous said...

It is time to recognize that even good intentions can pave the road to - you know the rest.
One of the models not adopted in forming the United Jewish Communities was to invite in as partners and share holders more organizations than just federations. The wisdom of that McDonalds University moment was that UJC/JFNA was to be for federations only.

Three thoughts;
1) JFNA should revert to being the old CJF. Dues supported the budget, research for and about federations was essential- including presenting best practices, and communal issues sometimes were afforded honest debate.Issues of personnel - training, placement and creating a sense of a Jewish communal profession - should be part of this agenda. This new enterprise all organizations what wish to be members should be welcome.

2) JFNA should get out of the business of CRC- such as IAN. The need is for coordination not creation. While IAN has done good work it belongs in another venue.

3) UIA should gracefully exit JFNA and resume its role as the independent sponsor for the Jewish Agency in America. Under its banner great leadership can be assembled( as it usually is at UIA) and it can revert to its pre UJA days as the fundraising leader to build- or in this case build up- the state of Israel.

Anonymous said...

I agree with 11:19. Without taking away from any of the PAST accomplishments of the Chicago or Cleveland CEO's, they built 20th century organizations, not 21st century ones. Neither of them are capable of leading the changes necessary today. I'm not even sure they're capable of following a path laid out by others.

The LA CEO's huge ego would get in the way of any serious change at JFNA.

That leaves NY's CEO - who, it appears - goes about his work quietly and effectively. For NY the real question is what local value can a national organization bring? The answer is little to nothing. Which raises the question, is NY truly committed to a viable national organization? Answer that, and we'll probably know if they're committed to do anything other than just "go along to get along."

Anonymous said...

Consider the political climate we live in today. There are plenty of people who despise paying taxes to the Federal government. They don't "get" the idea of the collective. Well, until their area suffers a crisis or emergency. And then they realize that all of the lemonade sales, and Red Cross efforts, and local and state funding still aint enough.

Then, and only then, do they run to the Federal government, begging for money and assistance. If only they would be so magnanimous when others are in need.....

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:03. Too soon on Goldstein. Maybe but being quiet doesn't mean effective. Solomon and Terrill could but won't. Also have hope for this Brian Abrahams guy. Unfortunately I don't see any women in the mix, but would be a nice change.

Anonymous said...

So Mr. Wexler you once failed to most my comment because you did not accept criticism of your anonymous minion. Will you print this?
Tell me the value of allowing anonymous commentators the opportunity to insult Federation executives? How does that help your cause?
I've met the execs insulted by Mr. 4:03 and without even knowing his sorry background I know that attacking individuals that work tirelessly for the Jewish people only exposes his weakness, pettiness and true lack of Jewish values.

Anonymous said...

JFNA should indeed accept the fact that it is CJFWF at best and cannot ever fulfill the other roles that were supposedly to be part of the merger.

UJA was unfortunately completely eradicated in the merger (Talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water! What idiot's we were!). If only JDC and JAFI could join forces and bring back serious collective Israel fundraising and advocacy.

UIA can still be great but only if it becomes independent again and escapes from the death grip of JFNA (see number 3 in Anonymous 3:02 above). The leadership is there and we should encourage them and assist them in breaking out and moving forward instead of putting all of our efforts into JFNA I&O self-marketing "operations" and the promotion of the JFNA brand.

RWEX said...

Let's be clear -- I appreciate all of you who write -- well almost all. There are some of you, however, whose Comments strike me as inappropriate:

1. Those who write Anonymously to criticize others for writing Anonymously; and

2, Those with nothing substantive to add who criticize my "tone" (now with odious comparisons to Trump). I have always found objectionable those who hide behind objections to "tone" but have nothing substantive to add. Write again when you yourself have something "constructive and collaborative" to add


Anonymous said...

Rochester? Nashville? Do you have any clue about what the Jewish community looks like in 2016?

RWEX said...

It's cryptic Comments like 7:19 p.m. that offer nothing to the discussion whatsoever. If you have something substantive to offer, do so.

Anonymous said...

7:19 here.

Not cryptic at all. Just baffled by your weird choices of communities that are small and downward-trending in their demographics while you ignore so many large and growing communities. The obvious conclusion would be that you picked either at random or that you picked because you had some irrelevant personal connection there.

RWEX said...

Nothing would please me more than to see your list of the "many large and growing communities" that you know so well. Send us your list.

Anonymous said...

It's not about my list. This is your blog. Shouldn't you explain your choices?
But at least wouldn't you think that Boston or Philadelphia or Palm Beach are a little more significant than Rochester? Or Nashville?

RWEX said...

To 11:14 p.m.,

I feel badly for anyone who suggests that I know not "what the Jewish community looks like in 2016" because I included Nashville and Rochester among a list of and out communities and then you, demonstrating your incredible knowledge, send me the names of three communities each of which continues to struggle mightily to gain traction. City-size does not determine relevance. Why don't you try to identify three communities that meet your own criteria instead of criticizing mine?

And, also, yes, this remains my Blog; try writing one of your own.

Anonymous said...

Richard, why do you even bother responding to someone so lacking in knowledge of the federations system as to attack your highlighted communities and then suggesting three, one of which is no longer part of the collective, another of which is still in recovery mode from the Madoff disaster and a terrible CEO choice and the third of which has been struggling for the last twenty years? It's not worth your time or the time of those of us who are engaged with the subject matter of your Posts.

Thanks for what you are doing.

Paul Jeser said...

anon 9:40 - YUP!!!!

RWEX said...


Let's understand two things:

1. Anonymous Commentators attacks on others who Comment will see their Comments immediately rejected; and

2. Anonymous Commentators who wish to call me names (especially after reminding me that this is my Blog) will meet an identical fate. This is especially true when you, whomever you are, don't even bother to have your facts straight. For example when I wrote that the Boston community "continues to struggle to gain traction" even the most stupid amongst knows that that Federation's campaign is over 75% designated dollars, that with the same Jewish population as Chicago, it raises 2/3rds less than Chicago, and its undesignated allocation to overseas needs remains the lowest percentage-wise of any Large City; yet that person chose to call me a name.

So, hint...you won't be published here.

Paul Jeser said...

Richard, why don't you try an experiment. For one of your future blogs which you know will bring comments, announce and only allow named comments

Anonymous said...

Won't work Paul. Only you'll comment.