Thursday, March 30, 2017


The crisis in the professional leadership of our federations -- from the Large through the Small -- is upon us. Many of you have written me about the myriad of Federation CEO positions that are already open and the many more expected to open up this year, in 2018 and 2019 at communities from the Large to the Small. There is probably no greater failing on the part of JFNA than its abandonment of institutional responsibility to the Federation professional movement. 

The numbers of open or opening CEO positions in our system seems to grow weekly. Given that JFNA decided to walk away from the CEO placement process -- a "process" it had delegated away, as in so many things, to Mandel for years -- federations are essentially on their own, without guidance or assistance from JFNA. How daunting has this become? One professional leader in our system recently wrote this to me:
"The huge concern is that the new Execs flooding the field as my generation retires, almost universally have no experience with or appreciation of the Collective. There is  a steady drift away from core at all Feds, including Large and Large Intermediates, coupled with, of course, declining campaigns and concomitant reductions in overseas funding.”
Yes, new CEOs who join the federation system in the main are those arriving from experiences at Hillel, Camping, AIPAC -- organizations with their own complexities and foci but none, I submit, as complex as the federations of today. Who will train them; who will prepare them; who will mentor them? Great questions the answer to which appears to be -- not JFNA.

Some had held out hope that the CEO "pipeline" might be filled from the JFNA of over a decade ago when it began it Executive Development Program -- but that hope proved ephemeral. That program lasted two years, produced but a single Federation CEO, and all of the JFNA staff for that Program had left by the time the EDP collapsed. Today there is the Leading Edge effort -- CEO onBoarding. It must have looked good on paper. The Board for the program included four Federation CEOs (one who is leaving [or has left] his position) plus the ubiquitous Jerry Silverman, who seems to find time for so much while accomplishing...what exactly? The senior consultant to CEO onBoarding is a long-time federation CEO. One might have expected a "First Cohort" to be comprised of a strong group of potential federation CEOs. Wrong. Of 11 members of this "First Cohort," 3 are sitting federation CEOs and of the total group from disparate communal organizations, 2 are from Palm Beach entities, 3 from San Francisco -- 45% of this class are from 2 communities -- I don't get it. (I also don't get how two 2 day domestic "convenings," another in Israel and 2 Webinars offers either the necessary training or constitute a "$30,000 value" as represented.) 

We have Schools of Jewish Communal Service educating young, dynamic women and men in serving the communities, graduating them with incredible qualities, most of whom either join the communal system and languish eventually moving on and out, immediately find positions outside of the system, and the few, too few, who flourish in the communal system but never move up to CEO. In decades past, Federation CEOs across the continent grew their "team" and took great pride in those team members moving on to lead one community after another. Today that rarely happens, often because federation after federation look for someone with no or limited knowledge of the lingua franca of federations -- and, if Jerry Silverman is any example for anything, unable to grasp it. This search for those with little connection to federations to become CEOs used to be called "thinking outside the box;" now it is de rigeur and it is now the hiring of a well-trained communal professional as CEO that is "outside that box."

For the years post-Silverman's hiring, the message from JFNA's search agent appeared to be a "federation-trained professionals need not apply," express or implied, for open CEO positions. JFNA actively lobbied for the "Silverman model," refusing to acknowledge that (a) that model had failed in almost every community in which it had been followed; and (b) that this was an insult to all who came up federation trained and proven. It was an attitude that both demeaned the federation professional cohort and diminished the profession badly. 

And, now, the chickens are returning to the roost. Even with communal leaders being urged to engage in executive succession planning, I think I can count the number of federations actually engaged in that planning on the fingers of one hand. I recall an ejewishphilanthropy Post in 2012, from the pen of Spertus College CEO Hal Lewis, Planning for Success(ion), calling for just that, read and, I guess, considered as "something others should be doing." And, this is really where the rubber hits the road. Just think about it: if in every community the lay leadership would insist on a professional succession plan, young communal pros, steeped in federation qua federation and communal values with an understanding of what federation is and could be and in the challenges of professional leadership would rise up. But, for reasons I both understand and don't, that just isn't happening...and the collapse of the federation professional cadre follows like night follows day.

So, where are we? JFNA, the organization that should be raising the hue and cry on behalf of those trained within the federation system, promoting them for the most senior professional positions within our communities, is doing the opposite and has been promoting the "Silverman model" for the past 7+ years. If anyone of you can cite a single example of JFNA urging a single federation, regardless of City-size, to choose one trained in the federations for CEO, please do so. (Maybe JFNA's leaders would state, as in so many other circumstances, "it's not our job." It is.) Among its many, many failures, this failure to promote the federation-trained pros may be, probably is, the most egregious. I, and you, have been taught as we grew within our federations and beyond, that the CEO represents continuity -- what can an untrained, unmentored senior professional parachuted in to the complex organism that are our federations today offer?

That is a rhetorical question.



Anonymous said...

Palm Beach exec as one example? But your points are very well taken and accurate. As a sitting Exec trained from within the federation system I squirm every time I read about the new CEO hire who has little to no knowledge of Federation. In too many cases, perhaps a non donor or very low end donor. JFNA giving up the professional recruitment and "transitioning process" (helping professionals move up which may require moving to a new city) was a MAJOR mistake and will hurt the field for many years to come.

paul jeser said...

Jerry Bubis z'l and Bernie Reisman z'l must be turning over in their graves.

Time to revisit Bubis and Windmueller's study, "From Predictability to Chaos"

Same ole question: We all know the problem - what are we going to do about it?

Dan Brown said...

"Among its many, many failures, this failure to promote the federation-trained pros may be, probably is, the most egregious."
I disagree. The most egregious is the complete failure of the national system to train the next generation of communal professionals at ALL levels - not just the "C" suite. The fault lies as much with the professional leadership as it does with lay leadership who apparently does not consider this money well spent.

Anonymous said...

Yes. Let's return to the glory days and put the highest priority to "core". Clearly,this is the answer.
Clearly, Paul and others are out of touch with Jewish life today and our challenges many of which started during the glory days.

RWEX said...

To Dan Brown's Comment, all I can state is "Amen" and thanks.

To the Anonymous at 4:37 p.m., inasmuch as you wish to hide behind you anonymity, please go further, and let us know your thoughts as to the "highest priority" should be today -- BTW I read nothing in Jeser's Comment (to which he attached his name) that referenced "core" -- and what would be your prioritized list of today's "challenges?"

Anonymous said...

Should each member of a family pull in a different direction or should they try to make important family decisions together and decide together on family priorities?
Shouldn't we be thinking and acting as an extended family/community/people?
That is the essence of the concept of the collective which we need to bring back into our lives and restore as a central Jewish community concept.
This may be old fashioned thinking but without it we are lost - just a bunch of individuals, each pulling in different directions and with nothing left to bond them into a family/commmunity/people.
Community was always and must always remain the central concept in our Jewish culture. That is our strength and giving up on this will be our weakness and ultimately our destruction from within.

Anonymous said...

The new exec in Palm Beach is a good example of a home grown, Federation trained professional. But that professional was groomed in a Federation (Baltimore) that put a great deal of emphasis on mentorship and professional development. That being said, we can't ignore what has been the trajectory of Federation selection committees, who have intentionally chosen to hire form outside the field in order to bring "new ideas" and "change" to Federations. Whenever an "outsider" is selected to serve as the CEO of a Federation, it sends a very discouraging message to those working from within Federations that their experiences have little value and upward mobility is capped. I agree that it is a huge disappointment that JFNA has abdicated what should be a central role of helping facilitate CEO searches as well as support recruitment and placement of talent. But you also can't ignore the message of Federation boards who have chosen to intentionally hire from the outside.

Anonymous said...

Community is still a core of Jewish life. But federation isn't the only community. There are many communities. I'd go further and suggest there is no such thing as THE Jewish community. Each Jewish Community consists of multiple Jewish communities within it. To the degree one conflates Jewish organization with Jewish community, many Jews any don't belong to any. Some belong to several.

When there is a singular concern that is sufficiently compelling, perhaps Jews will speak with a singular voice. When there are obvious and consensus existential threats to Jews, perhaps notions of Jews en mass caring for Jews will rewaken. But for now most folks know the real deal. They know American Jewry is not under existential threat. They know that while there are threats facing European Jewry, it mostly exists in relative comfort. And they know that the state of Israel is strong and if anything being pulled apart by internal squabbling.

Simply put, the condition that united jewish communities generations ago and compelled joint fundraising and joint action are not present. And while I get the sentimentality attached to those important decades of a relatively united front, these conditions can't be contrived.

All this is not to excuse horrible organizational governance, management, leadership. If we want to run top notch organizations competing and winning in a world in which time and money are more competitive than ever, we need to invest in exceptional professional and lay recruitment, onboarding, professional development and working conditions.

JFNA is lost because we still don't know what we want from it. Without precision and clarity around its role and what its role means programmatically, its effectiveness is and will be elusive. Frankly, the conditions I describe above are present within the so-called collective organizations -- federations and JFNA. No consensus and therefore no direction and no collective action. Everybody doing their own thing. And that's within the system!

Anonymous said...

I was a member of the last Mandel EDP cohort. It is true that judging from the stated goal of preparing the next generation of senior Federation professional leaders (i.e. execs), the EDP was an abject failure. In fact, a majority of the participants (myself included) no longer work in the Federation system, with many outside the Jewish community all together. Some hit the ceiling and left; some were pushed out; others felt they had done their service to the Jewish people.

So where did it go astray? One of the principles from the program is that there are always many pieces to the mess - each piece being owned by different constituencies - such as the sitting execs, UJC/JFNA, search committees, the Mandel Center, the culture of individual federations, the EDP program selection committee, the participants ourselves. It is simplistic to point fingers in any one direction. But sadly, the results are very much the same.

Without analyzing each party, I agree with the comments that have been offered so far. I think a significant issue are sitting execs who struggle with their own professional mortality - and therefore don't engage in serious succession planning or advocate for members of their staff to move up, and are not willing to let go and empower those beneath them. Letting go may be one of the hardest issues. But the participants and others like us bear responsibility too. How many of us were prepared to raise our hands, jump into the water, take on the ultimate risk? How many were willing to uproot our lives, move our families, leave the known for the unknown? How many were prepared to step out of our comfort zones? How many were willing to lead in a system with challenges that can overwhelm even the best?

Being an exec is about managing risk, while being a staff person is more about minimizing it. There needs to be a cultural shift too, with execs pushing their professional staff into the limelight with major assignments, giving them opportunities - and recognizing them - for success, and being there with support when they don't reach the bar. That is not the current culture of many Federations. And until this changes, not only will there be less promotion from within, but there will be fewer talented young professionals looking at this work as an exciting and rewarding career path. When Federation work becomes a job and not a career, the Jewish community has lost something very meaningful.

RWEX said...

To Anon at 4:05.

Thank you for writing. You have informed the issues our organizations confront with keen understanding. The federation system is weaker because you have left it.

Matt Freedman said...

As a fellow participant in the last Mandel EDP program, I concur with my colleague Anon at 4:05. I left the field for a variety of personal and professional reasons, and not necessarily with a conviction I would not one day return, as perhaps I might.

But I left a field in 2014 very much changed from the one I entered in 1995. The closest parallel I can think of is to the generation of blue collar workers in the '80s and '90s who anticipated lifelong careers in one company, only to find the sector transformed and those expectations no longer assured. Those changes in American manufacturing have been both for better and for worse - for consumers, companies and their employees. Likewise the changes underway today have made room for social entrepreneurship and innovation in Jewish life that was far more difficult 20 years ago; brought a diversity of experience and expertise to professional leadership; and created new opportunities for communal professionals, including the opportunity to explore other paths.

On the other hand, the eroding relevance of many mainstream Jewish organizations is, I observe, both a cause for and a result of the lack of professional development and succession planning referenced in these comments. The open space for innovation has spurred creativity but also widened gaps of unmet need. And my own sense of professional freedom, I will admit, co-exists with some sense of betrayal I think shared by others of my generation and experience.

Fundamentally, I believe change is inevitable and the potential for the changes in the Jewish communal system to be for good is very great. My lament, then, is all too often a lack of intentionality. Managed, strategic change, to allow for a new day and leverage new opportunities, even at the cost of some traditions and traditional values, can be net positive. Ad hoc change, much less fickle trend-following, however, does not allow for the planned and transparent approach to harnessing new trends and accommodating to new environments.