Wednesday, February 1, 2017


We have many serious issues within the federated communities and, beyond them, in Jewish organizational life generally. Within federations inside and outside of the largest, and in too many organizations to count, there have been too frequent examples of the most wealthy and generous philanthropists demanding sometimes absolute control of and power over communal/organizational decisions that have had the effect of rending the communal/organizational fabric. One leader deeply engaged with and in our Jewish organizational world has described this "phenomenon" as "the tyranny of the mega-donor,"

First, way back when, in so many places, at a much simpler time, a small group of men (and they were all men back then) would gather in a room, determine the community's needs and divide up the costs and fund them. It was, so obviously, a much, much simpler time. No longer.

In an extremely insight-filled Report, the Institute for Policy Studies and recently published Gilded Giving: Top-Heavy Philanthropy in an Age of Extreme Inequality. Therein, the authors cited the "risks...of a philanthropic sector dominated by wealthy mega-donors and their foundations..." These are risks to communal democracy and, thereby, to "charitable sector organizations," e.g., federations.

But, to us, this is not a new phenomenon. And, prior to the merger (which is a date fading more and more into the past), there were examples -- e.g., the North Shore Massachusetts Federation and the Tidewater Virginia Federation, among others -- of the most wealthy demanding that communities cease paying their CJF Dues and the communities doing so. And, over the years many communities, under pressure from significant donors, demanded significant changes in allocation percentages reducing the Jewish Agency share often unrelated to needs. The threat, and we have all heard it in one form or another, is something like this: "Either do this, or I will never make another gift." 

And, these are but examples of the deterioration in the concept of "community" -- of the deconstruction of community into the paradigm of "bowling alone;" into the exercise of personal power where the greater good is sacrificed to personal aggrandizement. Few communities, few organizations can ever recover. The ultimate examples of this can be found in the more recent past -- and even the present...

We have seen one southern/southwestern federation, once a true partner in every way that a federation could be, with a strong lay and professional leadership cadre, a significant allocation to overseas needs, coopted by the community's largest and most influential philanthropist, one dedicated totally to that philanthropist's personal agenda and generosity. The CEO left and a large measure of the lay leadership who objected, loudly or quietly, it made no difference...out. The community never recovered. (If you go to this Federation's website, you cannot even link to the community's Board of Directors, if there is one any more.)*

Then, there is a Federation in the West, at one-time the fastest growing Jewish community in North America, with a cadre of young philanthropists, cultivated by a terrific professional leader, who were beginning to realize the great communal potential in a partnership with JFNA -- a partnership, like most with JFNA, abandoned by our inept umbrella organization at the worst possible time. That federated community always seemed to be under the dark cloud of one of the most major philanthropists. In my experience with the community, I watched as this donor threatened to forever withdraw his support (which had not then been realized upon, if it has been, sort of, today) if, first, the federation did not force out its CEO (who had built the community and its lay leadership in dramatic ways) and, second, if its then Chair and most significant and thoughtful leader, who, with his wife, a dedicated philanthropist and communal leader in her own right, did not withdraw from their lay leadership roles (which they did in the supposed "best interests of the community"). CEO...gone. And that CEO, it turned out, would not be the last -- there and elsewhere.

A new CEO was hired in the midst of the economic crisis that impacted this community as badly or worse than others. Inasmuch as there was no tradition of federation giving in the community, the annual campaign quickly cratered and the new CEO, an energetic and creative campaigner like his predecessor, had to start anew -- which he did. Even this philanthropist was persuaded to make a significant gift (most, if not all, of which was designated to the philanthropist's projects in and outside the community). but three years in, this donor demanded that this CEO must go or, once again, the community would lose its largest gift. (This was not the first time that this donor made similar demands -- at one of our most-cherished charities, dedicated to bringing tens of thousand of young Jews to Israel for a one week experience -- the same philanthropist demanded that the sitting CEO, one of our system's most creative fund raising leaders, be forced out; the implication being that the alternative would be that the donor would terminate his contributions of tens of millions annually. In short order, this CEO was out.) And, so it was, in this growing community, a CEO driving to rebuild an extremely complex community was gone at the whim of a mercurial mega-donor. 

There is also one of the Large Cities where the lay chairs, among the community's largest donors, along with a small cabal of fellow travelers, were known to either suppress or overrule Federation Committee recommendation with which they disagreed with no further process. And, if rumors are true, they have joined in the recent force-out of their sitting CEO...and not for the first time...a CEO they themselves had hired.

And there is the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an "institutional" mega-donor, if you will, whose incredibly generous annual gift has been withdrawn from organization after organization if the ever-increasing demands of its "sole decider" could not be met -- and met immediately.

And we saw an invitation to Rabbi Lord Sacks to speak at the 2016 GA dictated by a JFNA lay leader who clearly has her eyes focused on the Board Chair position and who ignored the staff's warnings that this choice would prove not just controversial but tremendously divisive. Over the years, present and immediate past-Chairs excluded, a succession of Board Chairs became frustrated when their personal agendas weren't immediately implemented, but those frustrations ended with the imposition of the GPT, something that would not have happened had there been a true lay-professional partnership and Board members with the courage to speak out.

When things like these happen, when personal agendas prevail over the communal agenda or when a single donor, or even a small group, convinces himself/herself/themselves that his/her/their agenda is and shall be the community's/organization's agenda, the sense of community and the community itself are lost. The same thing can occur (and has) when a small cabal "captures" the organization's leadership believing that the small group goals trump communal goals. (Yes, I'm talking about the epic failure that was JFNA's Global Planning Table). And, of course, there are even more federations and other Jewish organizations where the CEO dominates assuring that the CEO is "protected" by a captive, acquiescent lay leadership. All of these circumstances are characterized by an attitude of "...let ___________ do it" -- a delegating away, a failure of fiduciary duty.

Be assured, as a former Presidential candidate said of one incredible Jewish philanthropist, himself a past Chair of a Large City Federation who put community first, in the instances cited above, there are so many men and women have "used...(their philanthropy) enrich the lives of so many people whose names you will never know." At the same time, in the instances cited above, men and women who should know better, but are never told, have confused personal agendas with those of the community...and the end result has not been to the detriment of the philanthropists/the "deciders" themselves but to the detriment of their communities/organizations. More and more we have sold our communal souls to the highest bidder -- and, after all, if great Jewish wealth can "buy" presidential candidates, why not a community, an organization or two or three or...

And we have come to learn, too many times, just where this "practice" can lead. The chances of the resurrection of collective responsibility under these circumstances are nil.


* Yes, I have identified neither the philanthropists nor the communities/organizatiions. Please neither ask nor speculate.


Rav Yoda said...

Richard, I do not know if you saw this article, but I am curious what you think:

RWEX said...

Rav, I hadn't seen this -- I can only say "sad, very sad." I have watched and worked with this Federation, solicited for it, and I'll devote a Post to this collapse.

Many thanks.

paul jeser said...

What I found interesting about this article, besides the obvious, is that all people quoted are professionals - not one lay leader!

Anonymous said...

I think we need to call the phenomenon for what it is - the privatization of Jewish philanthropy and the slow negation of the concept of community. We may yet see the end of all pretense of being responsive to popular sentiments.