Allocating Federation Money: The Continuing Saga

The global Jewish media, including eJewish Philanthropy, has recently been somewhat pre-occupied with both the new strategic direction of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the very public discussion of how declining overseas dollars are allocated by the Jewish federation system, including the percentage split between JAFI and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). As to the latter, while on the one hand all three organizations bemoan the public nature of the debate, all three are playing the media the best they can.

As crunch time appears to be coming on many funding fronts, one forgets that this debate over splitting allocations between JAFI and JDC is anything but new – in fact, it has been ranging on and off since before the establishment of the State of Israel. Today we are just witnessing the most recent skirmish in a very long war.

Weighing in with some background is Dr. Mark Rosen, who in conjunction with the Fisher-Bernstein Institute of Jewish Philanthropy and Leadership, has recently published a book Mission, Meaning, and Money: How the Joint Distribution Committee Became a Fundraising Innovator. The book provides an inside look at how JDC has developed into such a global fundraising powerhouse. While the recent events are not covered, the history is; the book itself is a must-read in order to understand the debate currently raging. (you can read a review of the book and an interview with Dr. Rosen.)

This from Dr. Rosen:

“Going back to the 1920s, there was a tension over how the money collected from Jews in America would be spent overseas. Jewish federations collect money for charitable Jewish causes. While some of that money is used locally, some goes overseas. So there was always this tension regarding overseas allocations. Should the money go to Israel primarily, or should it go everywhere else? You had some fierce battles in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, always over how to split the money. During WWII with everything going on there, and then after, when hundreds of thousands of survivors of the Holocaust needed to be housed, fed, and receive medical care, the money went primarily to the Joint. But then Israel was born in the late ‘40s, and now all of a sudden, Europe is the past, Israel is the future. While the JDC was focused internationally, the Jewish Agency was concerned with immigration to Israel. By the early 50s, the Jewish federation system institutionalized the split of 75 percent to the Jewish Agency and 25 percent to the JDC that is now still in effect.

But now here we are almost 60 years later, and immigration to Israel has slowed down. There are hundreds of thousands of Jews that need services in the former Soviet Union, and yet, the split formula of money is still the same. In the past few months, the JDC has been more vocal about saying that this doesn’t make any sense anymore, the formula must be changed so that it reflects needs in the world, rather than past political ideologies. At the same time, the Jewish Agency is now talking about changing its mission, so that rather than being focused on immigration to Israel, it will now focus on the building of Jewish identity around the world.”

As stated above, crunch time. There is a great deal likely to be decided over the next 45 days – including moving forward on JAFI’s strategic plan and overseas allocations for the next year. All the organizations have their work cut out for them. The Jewish Agency, who plans to enlarge their direct fundraising approach in the U.S., is more than a decade behind the JDC in moving ahead solo. In addition, the narrative of Jewish Identity is simply not as “sexy” to the North American donor public as JDC’s “we help Jewish people”. Meanwhile, over at the JDC, while their Board fineses the language of relationships with the various federations, the organization continues to move ahead with high-power FRD hires. And JFNA, who seems to be in a “heads you loose – tails you loose” situation is, at least concerning overseas allocations, heading towards functioning solely as a loose confederation of affiliated federations.

Not to be forgotten, and intertwined with at least some of the funding decisions, the Government of Israel’s role in funding educational projects in the countries of the FSU.

All four of these organizations ultimately have the same problem, doing more with less. Let’s see if any of them rise to the challenge.