JFNA: What Is It Really All About?

The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is coming up in just a few short days. We have had an opportunity to read a number of postings over the last several weeks about the challenges facing the federation system and JFNA (here). Other postings (here, here and here) questioning the viability, and challenges, of the federation system have appeared from time to time. Questions are still asked about whether the federation is an outdated institution that has lost its standing in the Jewish community.

Many of the opinions focus on two themes simultaneously. The federations are not maintaining their position in the Jewish philanthropic world and are no longer attractive to donors who want to have a direct connection to the causes and institutions they support. At the same time, there have been many comments about JFNA not reflecting a clear purpose or demonstrating its abilities beyond the recognized contribution and success of its representative office in Washington, D.C., that maintains ongoing relationships with the branches of the United States’ Congress and government offices in the capital.

In looking at why JFNA engenders so much criticism we have to discuss its roots and the purpose of organization whose membership is composed of locally based community structures. The historic role of JFNA’s predecessors, The Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (CJWF) and the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), was to maintain a dual focus: 1) meeting the needs of its members and 2) representing the members in both national and international arenas. As the Jewish communities’ priorities shifted so did the focus of the organization representing the federation system.

During the years of the CJWF and the CJF there was clarity about the importance of serving the federations in providing support in order to increase their capacity to function in order to meet the emerging needs of the local and overseas Jewish communities. The organizing principle was to provide federations with services that would strengthen them individually and collectively. The organization’s weaknesses became evident when it expanded its purpose and accepted upon itself the responsibility for representing and advocating for the allocation of funds overseas following the merger with the United Jewish Appeal.

Once this decision was made it meant that the membership organization of the local Jewish communities was not limited to providing services to its constituents. Unfortunately there was never a serious analysis as to whether the inclusion of these added functions would impact on its responsibilities and obligations to its members or whether, in fact, there would be a conflict of interest built into this reorganization of the Jewish community’s national fundraising and allocation process.

I have always been, and continue to be, an advocate for a strong and effective umbrella organization for the local Jewish communities. During the days of the CJF the organization was able to provide information about trends in the communities as well as training for both professional and volunteer leaders. The local federations had an entity that was clearly there to assist them in being more effective and efficient. There was no doubt about what its purpose was and who were its clients.

Of course it is true, that there was a built in disparity in the use of the CJF’s services and an inverted relationship between the dues paid and the use of the organization’s services. This was a result of the fact that the middle size and smaller communities paid lower dues then the larger communities and very often they utilized more of the services offered to the members. It was understood to be part of the notion of the systems commitment to collective responsibility. Of course, occasionally the larger communities complained about the apparent lack of parity, but as long as there was a commitment to ensure the continued development of the system there was an understanding that there needed to be an investment in the smaller communities. Often the larger communities had their own resources and could invest in strengthening their organizations in a way that was not available to the smaller communities.

Another example is JFNA’s General Assembly. At one time the GA was the premier forum for the member agencies to receive information and exchange ideas. It was an opportunity for the federations to strengthen their leadership by exposing them to the larger system beyond the local community and for them to learn about what is going on in other communities. As has been pointed out in postings during the last several weeks, JFNA seems to have lost sight of some of the important functions of this annual gathering.

Yes, questions have been raised about the viability of the federations in the context of the present philanthropic environment. Donors want to know what they are supporting and they want to follow their contributions. Serious questions have been raised about the notion of collective responsibility and whether it is a concept that was saleable in the past put does not have a place in today’s donor marketplace.

These are just the kinds of issues that should be the focus of the federations’ membership organization. We have evidence a great deal of creativity in the larger federations and we have examples like the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, the UJA-Federation of New York, and others that have developed approaches to maintain and strengthen the notion of collective responsibility. Unfortunately, the case is easier to make when we are struggling to meet the needs of the community after devastating events like hurricane Katrina or more recently hurricane Sandy.

The strength of the federation system is its ability to capitalize on the achievements of its member organizations and to develop a shared body of knowledge and experience. The umbrella should provide the glue that enables the members to stay connected with each other. The creativity of those members who not only weathered the change in the philanthropic environment but have been able to strengthen their Jewish communities, and themselves in the process, should be exploited to enable other communities to learn from their experiences. As many of us leave our communities to participate in the GA we should be asking ourselves how work together to influence JFNA so that it “gets it right” before it’s too late.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow.

This article reflects the personal views of the author, and should not be regarded as a statement of the views of eJewish Philanthropy or its funders.

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  1. paul jeser says

    Donshik misses the point. The JFNA, as dysfunctional as it seems to be, has become a non-entity because….


    Many lay leaders and professionals who are or were part of the Federation world are looking at what is happening today with very great sadness.

    In the ‘good ole days’ (were they really that good?) the Federation was the key player in all, if not most, communities. In the ‘good ole days’ the Federations attracted the top leaders, the most significant donors, and the most creative and visionary professionals. In the ‘good ole days’ the Federations were looked to for guidance and support by the entire Jewish Community.

    From what I read, see and hear, with very few exceptions, this is certainly not the case today.

    Most major leaders and donors have decided that institutional life is not for them. They have set up their own Foundations, decided upon their own priorities, formed their own umbrella support system and have hired top staff.

    So – as many of my friends have said: ‘Yes, we all know the problem – so what is the answer?”

    I may not have THE answer, but I do have a vision.

    But first, as the song says, let’s start at the very beginning.

    I may be wrong, but I think that the most significant event that began the slide down the slippery slope was…. Project Renewal!

    Yup – that great and most effective program began the downfall of the Federation world.

    In the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, the major communal organizations were the Federations and their support organizations, the UJA and CJF. They attracted the major donors, leaders and professionals. That world was where all the action happened. It was the place to be.

    Outside of the Synagogue world, and as a somewhat educated guess, probably 80%++ of all Jewish giving came through the Federation world. The Israel Education Fund was a quiet way that major gifts could be given through the Federation, not be allocated through the general campaign process, and be designated for special projects in Israel. With that exception most all other charitable giving and allocation was controlled by the Federation.

    In the late 1970’s Project Renewal was proposed by the Jewish Agency and accepted by the Federation world. Many voiced reservations; not because the goal was not a wonderful one, but because they felt that once donors had the ability to so specifically designate their gifts (even with the parameters being agreed upon) doors would be opened that could never be closed.

    There is a story about an incident that took place in the mid-70’s during the discussion most Federations had about supporting Soviet Jewish Refuseniks who came to America (versus only funding those who went to Israel). A major Federation donor and board member, who felt strongly that all Soviet Jews should go to Israel and if they came to America should not be supported, seeing that he was in the very small minority, made the following statement: “I know that in a traditional democracy my position will be defeated, but let me redefine democracy for you: traditional democracy believes that one person has one vote; in my democracy, one dollar equals one vote.” Since his gift was more than all the rest of the Board members collectively, he felt that his position should prevail. Of course it didn’t as it should not have. But the lesson was there – he did not want others to decide how to allocate his contribution!

    Whether right or wrong, whether good for the community or bad, the fact is that most people, and certainly most – if not all – major donors do not want others to allocate their contributions and certainly do not want to spend time in organizational life.

    We are now thirty years later. The desire and ability to have more control over ones own gift and what Project Renewal began has resulted in the unbelievable growth and strength of dozens (if not hundreds) of niche organizations, hundreds (!) of significant family foundations and the significant weakening of the Federation world.

    So – since we all know the problem, what is the solution?

    My vision – or at least the beginning of a concept: We need a totally new communal structure.

    • 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.

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

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

    o 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.

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

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

    o 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.

    • 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).

    • 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.

    • 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.

  2. says

    i think there is a need for some sort of umbrella mechanism in communities, particularly to help fund smaller organizations that otherwise would have real issues competing for the few shekels they need.

    but….it needs to be done in a responsible manner. spending 20% – 30% -40% of a federation budget on admin overhead, salaries, events, etc. is morally and even halachically wrong. if you can’t run it for 10% – 15%, then you are not doing it right.

    happy to discuss further.

    arnie draiman

  3. Eliezer D. Jaffe says

    Paul Jeser is correct in pointing to Project Renewal as the beginning of inevitable change in the relationship between local federations and the CJF. Project Renewal gave rise to massive direct giving to Israel instead of decades of proxy giving via CJF to the Jewish Agency. While director of the Jerusalem Welfare Department in 1972 I remember leading bus loads of UJA philanthropists into the asbestos homes of families in the poorest Jerusalem neighborhoods. Once they got off of the busses and talked directly with neighborhood residents, they were no longer captive audiences of the central fundraiser giants. The concept of independent direct giving eventually expanded into the federation system, and they too took much greater control of their philanthropic funds, including more allocation to local needs (and less ffor Israeli NGO’s).
    Israeli nonprofits and fundraising consulting companies became more sophisticated in reaching out to donors worldwide, and serious donors have to do homework to find and partner directly with NGO’s here. Our NGO sector is like a major market economy, and an integral part of our democratic system.
    Because of these developments I do not see a great future for major federation funding to JFNA. Foolishly, back in the 70’s I thought that CJF-UJA could become a world Jewish philanthropic bank, but the Jewish world is more splintered and politicized now.
    Reality relentlessly makes organizations adapt or disappear. Perhaps JFNA will become a professional national leadership trainer, an honest independent philanthropic advisor, a conceptual developer, a keeper of statistics and trends on the Jewish world (local and worldwide), sharing the pulse and potential interventions with member federations for improving Jewish growth and healthy communities.
    If this is true, Jesner’s comments are very relevant to the discussion.

  4. Allan Reitzes says

    As a former federation professional who worked with Project Renewal almost from its inception, my direct experience does not support the contention that Renewal played the critical role described by Jeser and Jaffe. Direct donor contributions were not a prominent feature, moreover, while the Renewal committee leadership had significant top donor participation, the numbers directly involved on a cumulative basis were quite small. Beyond the unique single community experience, a group of federation-based Renewal professionals met on a regular basis at the GA and quarterly meetings for whom this was never a topic of significant focus.

  5. says

    Paul, I couldn’t disagree more with your belief that the relevance of Federation as a federated fundraising entity on behalf of community agencies is no longer critical to community infrastructure. What HAS changed is that Federation is no longer a brick and mortar place that CREATES community. Rather, Federation’s mission is to SUPPORT and INVEST in it. I draw this distinction because “community” is highly nuanced now in the 21st century where we have smaller tribes that overlap that allows me to have my own sense of community without buying into a full package. But the common needs of education, health, social service etc. are still there, and will always be there. If Federation can effectively support it, then it’s doing its job. I wrote a post for the Jewish Communal Fund a few days ago (bit.ly/StQfrh) that explains that what IS broken in Federation is their best practices for raising funds and engaging new leaders in the 21st century. I could write a book on all of the pervasive issues that keep it from being effective today. But its failures in retaining or attracting ambassadors and donors isn’t a reflection on their core mission. Stephen referenced a Federation or two that are making strides in this. But I also see some smaller Federations that are doing remarkable things without resorting to mission creep. JFNA and its General Assembly would be well suited in identifying those bright spots within (and some best practices from outside of Federation) showcasing what works and what doesn’t.

  6. Chaim Lauer says

    While the various analyses proffered in this discussion stream each contain at least a kernel of truth, none, including this one, is totally on target.

    For example, the end of the central campaign that my friend Paul Jeser suggests will most probably and rapidly recreate the havoc and lack of focus for which the federations were developed to minimize in the first place, that is, everyone going out for themselves. It was most often then — and increasingly so now — a case where the better fundraiser or marketing approach, not cause or policy or need, would succeed. The community will lose. The communal situation would become very quickly even more dysfunctional than it is now.

    The growing weaknesses of the federations and, especially, JFNA, were not the result of solely campaign failures or a lack of leadership vision. Long-term changes in American and American-Jewish demographics, economics, and values generated these issues more than any one specific choice or event.

    Institutional factors have also contributed to the problem. Among them are:
    1. the Federations’ continuing inability to integrate their planning and allocations processes into the fundraising/ marketing activities;
    2. The primary stress on a one-time a year campaign/ community contact; and
    3. The over professionalization of the agencies and services which removed volunteers from the front lines. [This comment will undoubtedly raise the hackles of many of my former colleagues. Yes, professionalization is necessary where confidentiality or special training is required, but not all communal activities require it. See the successes of Havurot, hospital visiting volunteers, outreach programs, service learning, etc. And, yes, it will require re-training professionals to increase their volunteer recruitment and supervision skills.]

    All three of these points disengaged volunteers from hands-on reality checks, passion, and ownership. All are symptoms and/ or results of the transition from the historic and constructive American tension between individualism and community to a “me-first, I know best, you are wrong” worldview in our society , Jewish and otherwise. This is clear to anyone who has followed the change in the nature of Jewish volunteer leadership over the last 30 years.

    The disengagement from community that is taking place all over America was only exacerbated by our Jewish institutional inertia.

    Among the communal responses to these kernels of truth could be:
    1. A modification of the campaign paradigm as the primary contact to the community to a service approach that includes more para-professionalism in the form of gemillut chessed/ service learning activities. People who give of themselves, not just their money, to a cause feel a greater sense of affiliation with that cause;
    2. An integrated community process with an annual campaign coupled with a triennial budget review and allocation cycle.

    Doing these together and correctly would accomplish a great deal. It would:
    1. ease burdens on beneficiary agencies, lowering Federation-agency tensions;
    2. promote better planning and accountability for both federations and agencies;
    3. allow for more community input; and
    4. would engage donors of all levels by providing more opportunities for real engagement with their Jewish traditions and community.

    All these would result in a stronger sense of communal membership and ownership. These responses would help re-start the flagging Jewish communal engine.

    And it is needed more at this moment than any time in 100 years.

  7. paul jeser says

    Responses to three comments:

    To Allan Reitzes:

    My experience is 180% opposite of yours. I was a Federation Executive Director (Orlando) when Project renewal began and experienced first-hand the relationship this program built between ALL donors in Orlando and our Project Renewal community (Kfar Saba). The personal relationships developed were as strong as, if not stronger than, those developed with the local agencies. The financial support given directly to a program in Israel seemed to be much more effective than giving to the communal ‘pot’. Local donors visited on their own, communicated directly, and many groups within the community developed fundraising programs to support specific Project renewal activities. Project Renewal was a major player….

    To Jonah Halper:

    To be honest I do not know you and therefore went to your website. The site says that you have over a decade of experience as a consultant… and, no mention of experience working in a Federation or other local Jewish Communal institution (http://www.jonahhalper.com/#!biography/c1enr): I’m not sure you have the experience and expertise to make such an evaluation.

    However, I will respond to your first point “… I couldn’t disagree more with your belief that the relevance of Federation as a federated fundraising entity on behalf of community agencies is no longer critical to community infrastructure.” The lack of relevance of today’s Federation world (of course there are individual exceptions) can be described with one observation: The demise of the National Young Leadership Cabinets and the supposed success of Tribefest!

    Enuf said.

    But I’ll say more. Again, knowing that there are exceptions, as I hear from colleagues, read quite a few Jewish Community newspapers and other periodicals and blogs, the conclusion that, for the most part, the Federations have become just another fundraising institution is clear and without a doubt. That this is a shame and a serious problem is also clear and without a doubt.

    To my long-time friend and colleague Chaim Lauer:

    I appreciate and tend to agree with your opening observations. Where we begin to disagree is when you list possible communal responses. As much as I wish they would be feasible I think that it is too late for them to ever be possible.

    As long as the most effective leadership and donors stay away the Federation system will continue its slide downhill. I think that the system is broken enough that it can’t be fixed – it must be re-invented. Whether the new institution is based on the ‘visions’ I shared – or others that may be developed – there must be a significant change. That change will probably have to include it not being a fundraising or funding organization, but a communal planning and leadership organization that is so needed.