A Different Slant on the Global Planning Table

by Carl Sheingold, Ph.D

The decision of the JFNA to create a Global Planning Table (GPT) has been greeted with a good deal of skepticism in the press, including several pieces in eJP. Many observers have asserted that it will be a bureaucratic anachronism, out of step with the culture of a new era in which decentralized philanthropy and innovative start ups are replacing a system of large institutions seeking to set or reflect communal priorities. Some within the system have expressed the opposite concern built on the assumption that the GPT will lead, as a likely if not intended outcome, to a withering if not destruction of the long standing relationship of the federation system with JAFI and JDC.

The values of Jewish peoplehood, collectivity, and mutual responsibility are indeed countercultural in the kind of individualistic, entrepreneurial culture of Jewish philanthropy today. Federations have often been criticized for being dominated by wealthy elites, but it is equally being criticized for not functioning enough like effective businesses as they seek to adapt to new markets and consumer sensibilities. Given the history of prior efforts to create a system for collective responsibility outside of the normal allocations process, not to mention the complexity of the task, skepticism is warranted. And this skepticism may be exacerbated by the mixed results of the merger between UJA and CJF that led to the creation of the JFNA and its predecessor organizations.

It is, however, striking that most criticisms of the JFNA, its predecessor organizations and the GPT specifically, contain various, if often implicit, “I wish it were otherwise” statements or backhanded complements to the value of Federation work. There has always been the sentiment, even among critics of the federation world, of the value of a strong federation system and a vital sense of peoplehood and collectivity. Perhaps the repeated efforts to create a new structure for acting on collective responsibility in the face of prior disappointments are a tribute to that sentiment. There are circumstances where repeated disappointments and even failures are an indirect tribute to the importance of the subject and the worthiness of the effort.

So without mitigating the validity of skepticism, perhaps some thoughts on this subject with a different slant would be useful. An explicit or implicit theme in all of the responses has been skepticism about the potential for creativity within this new system. Even the world “bureaucratic” is as much used to make that point, as it is to describe the structure and system that will mark the work of the GPT. Or perhaps it is to link those two points – process and bureaucracy being seen as the enemy of creativity.

The other major theme in critiques of the GPT was expressed in Jay Michaelson’s contribution to eJP. He asserts that our community is not amenable to “centralized planning.” It is too much made up of “… numerous self-selected and often temporary communities working toward various ends and with different values motivating them.” In other words, our community is a network of only partially connected networks, not a set of institutions working within a structure that can meaningfully set priorities for the future. “Open source developments, crowd sourced social media, and the decentralized success of the Tea Party and Occupy movements should by now have taught us that the best path to innovation is not Soviet-style central planning, but the anarchic chaos of the free market, in which lots of ideas are experimented with, and only the strong survive.”

This sentence well captures the contemporary political culture. But, as Jay Michaelson might well agree, it is not an altogether salutary culture. In a polarized American politics we have witnessed a startling incapacity to take action to meet serious problems affecting, precisely, the health of the collective. To invoke “Soviet style central planning” in this discussion is to introduce a straw man and to miss the most serious challenge facing the GPT effort. The weakness of the national system is not a consequence of its holding onto out of date modes of centralized planning. It is the diminishment of its very capacity to do serious and creative planning. This would seem to be one of the outcomes of the UJA/CJF merger.

The reason to be skeptical about the potential of the GPT is not that it will function as a hierarchical planning system. It is that it will not use this as an opportunity to create a renewed capacity for planning that will enable it to provide creative leadership as it also seeks to be responsive to the wants and needs of federations. For JFNA and for observers, this will require resisting false choices. GPT will need to find a process and structure that combines planning and spontaneity; leadership and responsiveness; sophisticated politics as well as openness and transparency; and, of course, what might be called business/market models as well as models of communal life and governance from the public sector that remain relevant to its role and mission.

The merger between UJA and CJF was clearly going to result in greater control of the national system by federations. That was never in doubt. Another question has hovered over the merger from the beginning. Would it also lead to a new and more vital national system that, among other things, would take advantage of potential synergies between the cultures of CJF and UJA? In some ways, the GPT represents an attempt to capture some of spirit of UJA, but at a time when support for Israel is no longer an emotionally simple priority and rallying cry.

Will it also lead to recapturing some of the strengths of CJF – not in replicating what was, but in creating new planning capacities suitable to today’s communal and philanthropic culture? We are suggesting that success in the former will depend on success in the latter. And if JFNA can rise to this occasion, it will in turn put to the test whether the federations, while looking for greater control and responsiveness, are also looking for creative leadership that is intellectually and politically alive.

Can such leadership emerge from the JFNA? To assess that potential we must further explore the sources of creativity. The most consistent image of the roots or sources of creativity in criticisms of organizations like federations or JFNA is in the status of outsider who is marginal to the system. Jay Michelson’s makes this point, noting the role of “rebellious mega-donors” and refers to the margins as the place where “the most exciting work happens.”

Associating creativity with outsiders is valid, but there is another important theme in seeking the sources of creativity. As David Brooks put it in a recent Moment symposium on the subject, creativity is derived from the “blending of two different idea networks … creativity is very rarely inventing something new out of whole cloth; it’s using two or more old things to create new combinations.” It is hard to think of transformative creativity that doesn’t grow out of a new relationship, an encounter between traditions or paradigms for understanding the world. Indeed, the creativity of outsiders is typically built upon intense interaction with a tradition that is transcended, not simply rejected. We are most familiar with this phenomenon in the realm of cultural innovation. Brooks refers to Picasso’s creating something new in the meeting ground of Western artistic traditions and that of African masks. We recognize this form of creativity most readily in the arts because it usually is the product of the work of a single individual or school of cultural innovators. It can also take place within organizations and organizational systems that are, in fact, meeting grounds of diverse interests, values and sensibilities and the potential for creativity that such encounters bring with them.

Fulfilling that potential will call for consultation and input. But it can’t be a purely passive, responsive process. It will also need to be an active, strategic process. For example, there will undoubtedly be projects on the GPT agenda that are attractive precisely because their value is undeniable and impact is palpable. Much work in the human services realm has that quality and will always be central to the federation mission and fulfilling the core value of mutual responsibility. Might it also be important to find an early focus for the GPT that provides an exciting test of the potential for collective action in regard to issues that are complex (which is not the same as controversial), for which immediate results are not guaranteed, but about which collective experimentation and learning is most needed. After all, the real test of the GPT table will not be only its ability to support worthy goals. It will also need to demonstrate the value of doing so collectively. Research and development has always had the most obvious and least explored potential for a national system to create true value beyond what individual communities or federations can accomplish on their own. Indeed, R and D, as a complement to an increasingly open market place, is precisely what is needed to fulfill the potential for collective progress that is embedded the decentralized, “anarchic chaos” that Michaelson so vividly describes.

For example, issues of Jewish identity and Jewish education are replete with complex and yet critical issues demanding experimentation and learning. And it is significant that these are truly global issues that are being addressed in Israel, North America, Europe and Latin America. The potential to learn from each other through global interaction, to see ourselves through the eyes of others on a similar quest, but in profoundly different settings, contains enormous potential for creativity as well as providing a vivid experience of the meaning of Jewish peoplehood. Many such encounters are now taking place on the personal level, with profound impact. How can we translate that into collective learning and sustainable programs?

In this connection, the movement of JAFI toward a focus on such issues and the presence of JDC in Europe and Latin America suggest the ways in which the GPT can be a vehicle for developing new, productive relationships between federations, the communities they seek to serve and those institutions. It is also significant that this is the arena in which most of the mega-foundations have focused their efforts. The potential for the GPT to become a vehicle for creating new relationships between federations and foundations (between what is really the Jewish version of the public/private sectors and the many start ups that the latter has supported) is no small matter.

This is not the place to elaborate on how such a project, or others, might be structured and proceed. And it is early in the process. But it is also too early to give in to skepticism about a project whose potential is great and whose success would surely be welcomed.

Carl Sheingold is an independent consultant. His academic and communal career included service as Associate Executive Vice President of the Council of Jewish Federations and as Director of the Fisher Bernstein Institute for Leadership Development in Jewish Philanthropy at Brandeis University. He can be reached at casheingold@gmail.com.