by Nanette Fridman
As we embark upon 2010, Jewish communities across the country continue to work diligently to retool their organizations to allow for sustainable operations. If you spend time in many Jewish communal organizational board rooms or communal gathering places these days, you are bound to hear sentiments like, “We have cut everything that we can cut.” Now it is time for even harder decisions as priorities, agencies, core missions and tactics are re-examined.
As tempting as it may be, blaming Bernie Madoff and the economic downturn for the current state of Jewish communal organizational affairs is overly simplistic and inaccurate. The nefarious Mr. Madoff and the recession may have blown over the house of cards, but many of the failing or failed Jewish organizations had weak underpinnings that allowed them to be easily blown over. Years of inefficiency and failure to keep up with capital improvements and shifts in populations and demographics were perhaps hidden or ignored during better economic times. Many of these now troubled organizations have been stuck, slow or reluctant to adapt and evolve.
Here are ten observations about Jewish communities around the country to be considered when moving forward with future planning:
- Community planning must be ongoing. Many communities have no community planning function, either because of budgetary reasons, skill sets or politics. While this function is usually carried out by the federation or centralized Jewish agency, if it is not, then community leaders of various organizations should come together to form an ad hoc committee and work in concert with the donors and constituents to ensure that the vision and priorities of the community are established with timetables and measurable goals of success articulated. Ongoing planning is key for successful Jewish communities.
- Communities need stated priorities, and funding should be directed based on these priorities. When resources are free and flowing, it is easy to spread them around. However, now that resources are restricted, it is critical for boards, planners and allocation committees to decide what they want to focus on, what their community priorities are and how to communicate these to the community very clearly. Funding should flow to priorities in the order that they are assigned. This can be a difficult decision to concentrate on a few priorities, but now is the time to make difficult choices. Communities must focalize on what they believe is essential for their Jewish community and only expand as resources allow.
- Demographics change and organizations must be nimble enough to respond. Time and time again, you hear about buildings built 30 and more years ago in areas that were very “Jewish.” Over time, the Jewish population migrated farther from the neighborhoods of the building and therefore, the reach of the organization in terms of numbers became limited. Programs must move to the people. People will not, in this overscheduled and busy world we live in, travel under normal circumstances for daily services or programs. Many organizations and buildings have held on past their utility.
- Leadership – both lay and professional – really matters. When times are good and the water is smooth, a good or a solid “B” leader can stay the course. When times get tough, an “A” list leader is needed. Jewish communal professionals’ salaries lag significantly behind those in other fields making the opportunity costs for our best and brightest to enter into the profession very high. In terms of lay leaders, selecting the most charitable or the sole willing member of the community to be your organization’s leader doesn’t always create a leader who can shepherd the organization during turbulent times. The community must re-evaluate its selection and training and mentoring of leaders.
- Old buildings without endowments or set-aside resources for capital improvements can sink an entire community. Many of the communities now in trouble find themselves with older, run down community centers, synagogues, schools and other buildings which have failed to be properly maintained or updated. This comes at a time when consumers have more options for services than ever before and often at price points lower than the older facility can offer. Unfortunately, the costs of maintaining some of these facilities can be prohibitive. Ultimately, communities may have to survey their collective Jewish real estate and take stock of what can be sustained without jeopardizing the rest of the community.
- More isn’t always better. For example, communities often boast they have more than one Jewish preschool. However, when you scratch beneath the surface, you find out that in some cases each has a significant non-Jewish population and/or is under-enrolled. The same is true with Jewish camps. In some communities, there are multiple organizations assigned whose missions include Israel advocacy. Now is the time to consolidate Jewish programs that serve the same mission and invest in excellence.
- It is time to rethink what it means to belong. The high cost of membership is prohibitive to many who wish to affiliate with multiple organizations. The time has come for communities to re-examine the costs to belonging and consider “Community Passes” that allow for membership at multiple organizations like synagogue and JCC, for example.
- Synagogues need to be at the table. Many successful synagogues are providing services competing or complimentary to existing, other Jewish community organizations. For example, a synagogue may have a teen lounge or programming and so may the JCC. Synagogues may have preschools and so may the JCC. Historically, synagogues have not been part of the regular discussions at the Jewish communal level because they are not beneficiary agencies of the centralized agency, usually federations. Synagogues have to be integrated more into community planning and programming.
- The donors don’t look the same. Mega-donors don’t have the resources they used to, and the new Jewish professional class that is coming of philanthropic age does not have the means or charitable giving generosity as the predominantly business class of philanthropists that came before it. It used to be when an organization was in trouble or Jews around the world were in need, a couple of “heavy hitters” would gather their friends at their home or club and solicit them for significant financial help. Today, the era of the wealthy Jewish mega-donor seems to be setting and communities must rely on the next generation to step up. The problem is that the next generation often does not have the same resources as their parents or even if they do, are not solely committed to Jewish causes. This means that going forward the community is going to have to: (a) be more efficient with every dollar; (b) take a more grassroots fundraising approach; and (c) become more entrepreneurial in its ventures.
- The new donors demand a high PROI. PROI stands for philanthropic return on investment, and new donors demand a high PROI. This means organizations have to be efficient, effective and have a measurable impact and communicate regularly with their donors, even of smaller dollar amounts.
There is little doubt that the Jewish organizational landscape is changing. Trying to hold on to the past may cost the future. While closing or selling buildings or shutting down organizations is often difficult, leveraging healthy organizations to try to save faltering ones is risky business. Communities shouldn’t be afraid to ask themselves, “If we could build our community from scratch, what would it look like?” Hopefully, pondering these considerations will assist those taking on the awesome responsibility of creating and implementing a vision for Jewish communities of the future.
Nanette Fridman is President of Fridman Strategies, a firm that provides consulting services to mission driven organizations. She blogs at, Nanette’s Notes, and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.