In most Jewish communities in North America the Jewish Federation acts as a convener of local Jewish organizations. In Jewish communities outside of North America this role may be assumed by the recognized central institution in each community. In Israel it is not uncommon for a municipality to either establish or coordinate with a council of nonprofit organizations. In some communities those Jewish organizations joining together include the synagogues and educational institutions, and in others only those organizations that receive allocations from the umbrella organization come together.
This seems like a relatively easy concept that might be colloquially referred to as a no brainer. However, when community politics are involved simple ideas and issues can become very complicated. Unfortunately organizational self-interest can prevent community agencies from cooperating, coordinating, and collaborating together. Even the basic idea of sitting down together on a regular basis to exchange ideas and information can present insurmountable problems to some professional and volunteer leaders.
There are several levels of community coordination, and the simplest one is a roundtable of agencies, which can work to the benefit of the community and the nonprofit organizations individually. In Jewish communities throughout the world such a vehicle including social welfare, religious, educational, and other community organizations can provide opportunities for open communication, sharing of ideas, establishing priorities, and sharing resources in the community. The inclusion of all agencies that provide services to the Jewish community offers an added value of not unknowingly duplicating services because it enables each organization to be aware of what the other agencies are doing. Where similar services are provided, participation in a roundtable affords agencies the opportunity to pool their resources and thereby prevent the misuse of valuable resources.
In more progressive thinking communities, agencies participating in a roundtable actually engage in joint short- and long-range planning. This effort can prevent crisis situations from developing and enables organizations to strengthen the social safety net of the community so that it can offer services to the neediest constituents. Creative solutions can often be initiated with the combined resources of a number of agencies. Although solutions may not always be immediately apparent, when there is a willingness to capitalize on the knowledge and experience of the various professionals and their agencies in the community, then a meaningful response can be initiated and implemented to respond to human needs.
The council of organizations is a more sophisticated form of organization that enables agencies from various fields to share their knowledge and expertise. In the not too distant past, we witnessed how the ability of communities to respond to natural disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy was facilitated by their council of agencies. The established lines of communications enabled agencies to respond in a unified voice and alleviated unnecessary conflicts and competition among them. In Israel the council of organizations in communities and settlements along the border of the Gaza Strip were able to facilitate the delivery of services by coordinating the efforts of the organizations providing assistance and rescue services.
These kinds of cooperative and coordinated efforts can only be implemented when there is a willingness to forego organizational self-interest for the benefit of the community. There is no way that any one nonprofit can respond to all the human service needs of a single community. The creation of a council enables organizations to put their differences aside and to focus on their common interests and concerns. Of course, this means that a process has to be initiated that allows differences not only to be aired but also to be worked through and to develop a common agenda that takes precedence over that of any one organization.
It also means relinquishing sole loyalty to any one organization that might have been created by community leaders or one that has been supported by influential donors and volunteer leaders. These high-profile personalities have to set their egos aside to provide an opportunity for the development of a community-focused agenda or response to a crisis. It is not easy to achieve strong consensus in communities, and the creation of council of nonprofits is a useful tool in achieving this goal.
In Israel where there are more than 30,000 nonprofit organizations, of which approximately 12,500 are active and functioning, many of the municipal governing bodies have encouraged the establishment of such councils to enable the creation of more public-voluntary partnerships. The Israeli government increasingly acknowledges that it can no longer meet all human service needs, that it has had to turn more and more to the voluntary sector, and that the effectiveness of that sector is enhanced where there are councils or roundtables of nonprofits. In those communities with these vehicles, new initiatives have been created to respond to the emerging needs created by increases in the number of new immigrants and the wave of African refugees, for example.
Whether we are examining the role of nonprofit agencies in Jewish communities around the world or in Israel, the creation of functioning bodies that can coordinate the efforts of the plethora of health, educational, and social services will only enhance community life and encourage the effective and efficient provision of these services.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.