A Welcome Move To Expand Federations’ Reach

The United Jewish Communities (UJC) has taken an important and bold step by reconsidering the exclusive agreement it has had with the two overseas recipients of annual federations’ campaigns: the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the Joint).

Since Nov. 9, 1938, when the American representatives of the Jewish Agency, the United Israel Appeal, and the Joint first created the United Jewish Appeal, these two organizations have enjoyed a monopoly on the division of charitable dollars raised by the organized Jewish community. Even after the reorganization of the national bodies and the creation of the UJC about ten years ago, the Jewish Agency and the Joint continued to benefit from this guaranteed support.

Simultaneously both organizations continued to develop their presence in North America and to raise funds from donors who were not contributors to local federation campaigns, and from federation donors who wanted to support special or supplemental projects above and beyond their annual campaign gift. In either case the organizations held the keys to a majority of the funds allocated by the federations to Israel and to meet the needs of Jewish communities around the world. This system worked well both during the early years of the State of Israel and during a time when donors were not as well invested in how their funds were being used. The Israeli voluntary sector was not as sophisticated as it is today and there were many Jews living in countries of distress. Today the Jews of Iran and Cuba are the only ones who face significant danger and warrant specialized and unique assistance.

During the last 25 years Israeli nonprofit organizations have developed many innovative and creative responses to the emerging social, educational, and health needs in the society. These organizations have not had the opportunity to engage with the UJC, and the individual Federations. In addition, federation leadership has not been exposed to variety of agencies and services that are responding to human needs. At the same time, there are a growing number of Israeli philanthropists who are open to cooperative and collaborative relationships with their North American colleagues who have not been part of the Federation’s investment in Israel.

The proposal to initiate “…an intensive strategic planning process…” (From a recent letter from UJC leadership to JAFI leadership) is a way to begin to recast the role of UJC and the member Federations. In moving forward there must be a dual approach to working with Jewish communities in Israel and around the world. The UJC should continue to work with the Jewish Agency and the Joint, and simultaneously facilitate direct relationships with Jewish communities in Israel, Europe, the Former Soviet Union and other places, as well as the volunteer leadership in these places who have the resources to be partners in planning and implementing programs and projects.

By opening up the UJC system beyond the Jewish Agency and JDC, there is an opportunity to attract new donors who would be interested in a variety of opportunities to support a broader range of services. This would also lead to greater creativity in the allocations processes, and the Federation system would have a broader reach in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world. For example, new partnerships would be developed among leaders, agencies and donors in different parts of the world.

The federation system can no longer live by the brand of JAFI and JDC. It must extend itself to represent both the interest of donors and potential donors as well as the myriad of organizations that are responding to needs in new ways. The success of the Jewish Funders Network in attracting donors and funders points to the need for a more open allocations process. If local Federations and UJC had been more responsive, individual philanthropists and family foundations might have worked through the local community. However, since the federation was committed to the Jewish Agency and JDC through the UJC, there was no opportunity for collaboration on overseas allocations.

Very few federations can allocate funds outside the system, but those with the resources available have been able to reap the benefits of their flexibility. For example, UJA-Federation of New York, as a result of a substantial overseas endowment, has been in a unique position of funding more than 200 nonprofits over the last 20 years in Israel and in a number of overseas Jewish communities. This has provided the opportunity to develop supplementary giving opportunities and to educate leadership and donors to a broader understanding of the impact of the Federation’s funding.

Once UJC completes its planning process and develops a way for entertaining other service providers in Israel and throughout the Jewish world, federations will be able to use their annual campaign funds in meeting emerging needs in Israel and throughout the Jewish world with other non-profit organizations.  Given the present economic situation and the present concern for integrity in philanthropy, the broadening of options for contributors will ultimately strengthen the federation’s role. If UJC does not take this vital step it may find itself unable to meet the challenges presently facing the federation system and in the years ahead. By providing options UJC will be strengthening the organized Jewish community’s commitment to collective responsibility and strengthening the federation brand.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W. is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a private consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.