An Evolving Jewish Federation Model: Combined Jewish Philanthropies Breaks the Mold

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

A recent article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy (October 14, 2012) detailed the evolving strategies of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP, or Jewish Federation) to connect donors in Boston’s Jewish community with important charitable causes in Boston and beyond. Describing CJP’s unique and evolving tactic of collaborating closely with donors and nonprofit service providers locally and overseas, The Chronicle correctly noted that this approach was “not typical in the Jewish federation world.”

CJP’s success in this innovative donor-centered approach – a dramatic shift from the traditional Jewish Federation “community chest” style campaign – is part of a broader strategic direction employed by CJP to engage donors and meet the needs and expectations of their community. This approach, too, is one that other traditional “umbrella campaigns” are introducing, especially as one effort to stop the erosion of donor support.

Zamira Korff, CJP’s Senior Vice President for Development, provided some background for us. “Our relationship today with donors is much more nuanced. We look for a synergy between CJP’s strategic direction and our donors to ensure that their gifts are going to have the biggest impact possible,” she said in a recent interview with EHL Consulting. “Conversations happen over many months. It’s exciting to start with a donor’s idea or passion, and then couple it with CJP’s expertise. This evolution can turn a small initiative into a significant project.”

The recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article touched upon CJP’s evolutionary path from a “typical” Jewish federation – one that only collects unrestricted donations from donors, then allocates them back into the nonprofit community as they see fit – into one that has created a balance of the conventional approach with this donor-centric model. CJP actually began its significant evolution in 1997 with a strategic planning process that resulted in the organization consciously expanding its efforts to work with new partners instead of relying on the same handful of community organizations to get the job done.

They also made the tough decision to shift from primarily core unrestricted funding towards a program-based funding model, where all new allocations would be programmatically focused. Far from simply responding to recent economic pressures by adapting their model, CJP instead has been organically shifting their approaches for more than 20 years in order to better, and more effectively, serve their community – sometimes to the consternation of their traditional beneficiaries.

CJP’s success in its expanded donor-centered approach is due, in large part, to careful planning and identification of areas of community need and development, and initiatives with donors must be in line with CJP’s targeted goals. In 2008, CJP completed a strategic plan to outline their top three priorities: encouraging young Jews of all backgrounds to make Jewish choices for themselves and for their children, forging new connections with Israel that strengthen the Jewish State, and nurturing communities of caring and social justice where people take care of each other and the world.

Understanding how their programmatic and financial partners fit in with this overriding vision is the key to CJP’s success with their new model, notes Gil Preuss, CJP’s Executive Vice President.

“We have developed a very clear mission and strategy, and that helps us to achieve our goals while still being flexible in how we do so,” Preuss says. “Donors increasingly come to us with fantastic new ideas for fulfilling our mission, and working collaboratively with these passionate supporters has strengthened our ability to get a lot of things done.”

With this shift towards strategic evolution and continuous improvement comes greater responsibility for CJP’s leadership and staff. On their professional team Preuss notes that they have “elevated the caliber” of their staff, as well as making strategic investments to recruit and retain staff members with expertise in the necessary fields. CJP has also increased the number of Major Gifts Officers in order to meet the demand of leaders, donors, and the community for higher fundraising productivity.

“Our planning and development staff have to be intimately familiar with all of our varied programming in order to discover and discuss potential areas of partnership between donors, programs, providers, and CJP,” explains Korff. “They have to appreciate how everything fits together, be mindful of who is doing what in our priority fields of influence, and be able to keep a variety of programs on the radar that might appeal to potential donors.”

Whether this will be a harbinger or a sea change for the Federation world, or if it represents the strategic direction of one organization and its vision for its community domestically and overseas, is yet to be seen. The reality, however, is that the efforts undertaken by CJP do reflect a contemporary outlook and response to the evolution of the charitable arena. It is our hope that these advancements will inspire key organizations and responsible leaders in the Federation world and throughout the Jewish community to think and act with creativity and innovation as we take on the challenges of the future.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, a fundraising consulting firm located in suburban Philadelphia. They are frequent contributors to The EHL Consulting Group is one of only 38 member firms of The Giving Institute. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and nonprofit business practices and strategies. Learn more at

EHL Consulting Group Blog; on Facebook; TWITTER: @EHLConsultGrpPinterest

All rights reserved.