Saturday, August 19, 2017


Bob Hyfler, whose professional leadership has included his many years of service as Planning Director and COO at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and Senior Vice-President Research and Development at what is now JFNA, offered an insightful Comment to a recent Post on this Blog:
"Throughout the Jewish nonprofit world we have seen the withering of the authority of boards and volunteer leadership - a systemic phenomenon hardly unique to JFNA or Federations. The question of course is whether this is a result of coup or abdication and what needs to be done about it."
In the JFNA context this "withering of authority" of the JFNA Board (a) has been self-imposed and (b) with others, as discussed below, has effectively allowed the organization to "wither away." Today, we'll look at the symptoms, the effect, and what can be done about it even as it appears to be too late..and the leadership disinterested..

Friends, failure at Jewish Federations of North America isn't the fault of the structure emerging from the merger now so long ago. but the "[A]lmost two decades of mostly failure have been about the process, the execution." There should be no need to repeat that which is so patently true -- JFNA has failed, it continues to operate because no one gives a tinker's damn about it or is willing to give voice to the need or the time to turning it around. 

The lay leadership of JFNA -- this oligarchy which resists all efforts to penetrate the high walls they have built -- have demonstrated a constant willingness to abandon the basic principles on which we have built our communal institutions. This reality amazes me as it also disappoints me terribly. At some of our communal organizations clearly lay leaders have deferred to a strong professional leader; at JFNA that patent and undeniable deferral has not been to the strong but to the weak and it has wreaked havoc to both the potential and the reality, the very existence, of JFNA.

All of us should be able to see that JFNA is today an institution in such terrible decline that it appears to be in a death spiral from which it will be unable to emerge without intervention. And because we can see, we know this is an objective and undeniable truth even as so many in leadership are in denial. It is almost impossible to believe that a small group of proven communal leaders who have matriculated to JFNA leadership can continue to deny that which is indisputably true; but deny is what they do. And all one can ask is:"WHY?" 

Maybe the answer to "WHY?" can be found in the story of a pollster who asked a respondent what the reasons are for the apparent ignorance and apathy of the American voter. The response: "I don't know and I don't care." Yet, I know that the Board Chair and Board Members of JFNA care and care deeply, and yet...and yet...

We see a laity that humiliates itself every day of their inaction with an abject inability to take the steps necessary to change the paradigm that it has allowed to perpetuate deluding themselves into believing that all is well. And what is most amazing to me is that the collapse -- and there is no other word for it -- of JFNA has taken place in the full view of everyone. And "everyone" (well, almost everyone) has stood by in silence.

The worst of what all of us surely see is the requisite symbiotic relationship between strong professional leadership and strong lay leadership turned upside down. At JFNA we have the worst of that relationship: a weak laity so willing to hand over its responsibilities to a professional, who, in the person of Jerry Silverman, has proved to be incapable in all substantive ways. So it is that a relationship dependent upon coequal partners that would propel JFNA forward and upward is, in fact, destroying it. The effect? Jerry has been protected by a complacent, somnolent, soporific laity.

There has been no demand by JFNA's Board for accountability -- the annual lip service in Budget after Budget for monitoring and some/any form of that accountability has been just one more throw away line -- and where there is no accountability we have a professional kakistocracy, we have rule by the worst, one that is now in an obvious death spiral as lay leadership just runs out the clock until they are succeeded by the next group.

I don't think that there is really much in the way of intentionality to the shambolic JFNA of now; I continue to believe that the best of Federation lay and professional leaders will find their way to make the necessary changes that might rescue the organization from failure. But...but..what that will take is strong direction from a Board Chair and Vice-Chair and the catalyst that the Federation CEOs could and should provide. I know that the comfortable protect  their own; that too many believe their service in JFNA leadership is some form of honorarium; that having achieved that Board membership they can leave it to others to do the heavy lifting. It's evident that committing to and executing a change of CEO is a perceived Sisyphean burden that JFNA's highest level of leadership and the Large City CEOs (or any group of CEOs) appear unable or unwilling to lift -- or feel that such a change is unnecessary and/or unwise because everything is just "swell."

Look, I really wish I could write that Jerry has lived up to the demands of the job; that upon his contract extension he did some form of "pivot" into the professional leader he wants to be and which JFNA needs and requires. But that's not the case. From Jerry's hiring forward he has never demonstrated the skillset for this very complex job -- he demonstrates that sad reality 24/7 -- but he clearly has a singular ability to survive, one that by now rivals the tardigrade. Jerry has become like the rooster who believes his crowing causes the sun to rise. 

So, here is where change must begin. Pay off Jerry's contract; and move forward. Engage an Interim CEO/President on a two year contract; one who can and will work with the lay leadership to right the ship, to turn it around beginning the process that will lead to institutional excellence. During that two year term the lay leadership will conduct a Continental search for a CEO with the vision and skillset once demonstrated by a Marty Kraar or a Stanley Horowitz, the inspiration of an Irving Bernstein and the creativity of a Rabbi Herb Friedman. And, trust me, that person is out there.

Time has been wasting for over a decade while JFNA has slipped into an institutional coma. There is no more time to waste.



Anonymous said...

"And, trust me, that person is out there."
Yes she is.

Anonymous said...

You know the song "can't stop the music?" JFNA has its own version "can't stop the stupid," Stupid is as stupid does and no one does stupid better than JFNA under Jerry.