Adapting to the Future: The Changing but Critical Role of Federations

by Michael J. Weil

Richard Marker’s article in eJewish Philanthropy on funding intermediaries raises interesting questions regarding Federations. If we view Jewish Federations simply as a money making machine based solely on the annual campaign, then he is right that the writing is on the wall. Most Federation annual campaigns are at best flat and at worst slowly declining while the number of donors has continually been falling.

Philanthropic trends showing a clear movement away from generic campaigns and towards direct designated hands-on giving. Pro-active Federations are working in these directions by diversifying fund raising and providing donors with an array of choices that include the annual campaign, designated giving, endowments and so on. Federations like our own are in parallel appealing to corporations and businesses both for direct charitable gifts and also sponsorships as well as applying to foundations for grants for specific projects. Federations need to be the first to use technology in fundraising and through ephilanthropy get those $18 gifts as well as court the major donors. Federations who fail to respond in this way and keep hacking at the annual campaign and concentrating all their efforts there will find themselves in a long run losing game. Those that move with the times will benefit as ultimately philanthropy is on the increase and people continue to give albeit in different ways.

Federations still hold a considerable advantage in Jewish giving. They are known and trusted. They are transparent with effective oversight. They are the mainstays of local communal life and they are a major channel for support for Israel and Jews in need around the world. Federations are a strong and robust brand and if effective will outlive many of the new intermediary charities. All this providing that Federations indeed do move with the philanthropic times.

But more importantly, Jewish Federations are very unlike the other generic umbrella charities such as United way and Catholic Charities, Federations have a distinct communal role as leaders and conveners of Jewish communities. In most communities, Federation is recognized as the lead organization and the umbrella for the community. Federation acts as advocate and defender of the local Jewish community representing its interests before government at all levels and there to respond to any threats. No other agency takes an overall strategic look at the local community. Whether through a demographic community survey or by conducting a strategic plan, Federation is the one organization that is able to take an overall look at the way the community is functioning and how it should move or change in the future.

Federation is there to act as a safety net and spring into action when a crisis occurs. And the attachment to its umbrella organization, Jewish Federations of North America, brings a unique and extremely powerful addition to the table. Indeed the Federation movement with JFNA as well as its prime partners, JAFI, JDC and world ORT, is a very powerful force both on the American scene and the global Jewish arena.

Katrina was a case in point. When disaster struck it was the local Federation supported by the national movement, then UJC, that responded to the call. Federation acted as the lighthouse in the dark connecting Jews who had evacuated and lost each other, secured local buildings, rescued those in danger in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Then with the $28 million raised by the System and added to by local dollars was able to support the Jewish community in New Orleans and all its 19 agencies and synagogues over a three year period.

In parallel, the Jewish Federation conducted a community wide strategic plan to rebuild and renew the Jewish community with the active participation of representatives from all parts of the community. The community today thought implementing that plan has mostly recovered, is growing and more vibrant than ever before.

The point is that Federations indeed have a unique role to play and in their absence communal life would be significantly the poorer. In most communities, having a Federation at their center is a significant asset. That being said, federations cannot afford to sit on their laurels or be complacent, they must continually be two steps ahead of the game, work to ensure that young people are engaged, encourage Jewish experimentation and initiatives, be where the money is and work to assure a thriving Jewish future.

As we speak, in the post GA environment, we at our federation are putting together our plan for the exciting future of the Jewish community in New Orleans as well as the philanthropic tools to raise the funds to make this happen.

That is what Federations are about yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Michael J. Weil is Executive Director, Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.