Behind the Scenes at America’s Largest Jewish Charity

Mission, Meaning, and Money: How the Joint Distribution Committee Became a Fundraising Innovator

a review by Stephen G. Donshik

Mark Rosen teaches at the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University and he has written a seminal study in how a major American Jewish organization with world wide impact has broadened its base of support through creatively working with its board of directors, its donors and supporters, its staff, and with local Jewish Federations throughout North America. Recently, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (or the JDC as it is known) has been in the spotlight because it is considering a separation from the decades-old way its funds are allocated. Over the last 50+ years, the effort to raise and allocate funds has always been in coordination with the local Jewish Federations and their parent organization, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). This body coordinates the allocation of local federations’ funds to the JDC, the Jewish Agency for Israel and ORT.

If Mission, Meaning and Money had been published several months ago no one would have thought there was anything unusual about the JDC re-evaluating its relationship with the national structure. Rosen chronicles how JDC recognized the changes occurring in the national Jewish philanthropic system in the early 1990’s and decided to develop additional and independent connections not only with Federations throughout the United States but also with individual donors. From the time the former Council of Jewish Federations and the former National United Jewish Appeal began to discuss the merger of the two organizations along with the United Israel Appeal (today’s JFNA), JDC reengineered its strategy for educating its board of directors and for reaching out to cultivate a different base of support in the Jewish community.

Historically, the JDC received 25% of the funds allocated for overseas needs while the Jewish Agency received 75%. As the total amount of funds raised decreased this meant there was increased pressure for organizations to begin to develop additional sources of income. This was certainly a strong factor in the JDC’s decision to develop its own financial resource development program.

The book is a study based on a combination of historical documents and interviews with more than 80 people including JDC staff, board members, consultants, donors, Federation professionals and lay leaders, and representatives of other national and international organizations. Rosen has developed a picture of the JDC’s creative approach in planning and implementing an innovative way to expand and strengthen the support it has been receiving from the American Jewish philanthropic community. This plan includes a pointed effort to upgrade their staff members’ understanding of their roles with their donors and how they would have to be resident experts in donor relations as well as, continuing to fulfill their responsibilities in implementing JDC programs.

The study shows how a large American non-profit organization, whose programs span the globe, was able to revamp its approach to fundraising in a comprehensive way. JDC’s International Relations Department that has the responsibility for financial resource development (fund raising) is based in Israel but engaged a number of professionals in the United States to work along with their staff in Israel in this capacity. In addition, a major effort was undertaken to train staff in donor relations so there was a fully coordinated and well choreographed team effort in working with the Jewish Federations and donors.

The JDC also began to envision the role of their Board of Directors in a new way. They introduced the idea that all board members should be involved in the effort to increase the organization’s financial resources. This meant that board members would be approached to contribute to JDC on an annual basis as well as being solicited for additional gifts for targeted projects. There was an understanding that the sea change occurring in American Jewish philanthropy demanded that the board become an example of the new support for the organization.

The simultaneous approach of reaching in (by approaching board members for contributions) and reaching out (to new donors) has proven to be very successful. The JDC not only raised additional funds but was able to build a strong network of “new friends”. These were people who identified strongly with the JDC’s story and their way of responding to human needs around the world.

The book’s value goes far beyond the telling of the JDC’s story; it also offers a model for how non-profit organizations can strengthen their financial resources. Rosen offers us a way of looking at the agency’s built-in staff resources and existing connections. By redeveloping the concept of the board’s role and the way the professional staff use their talents, organizations can re-engineer their fundraising capabilities and see the results in just a few years.

The “gifts” the book offers us are to see beyond the present situation and to understand the importance of being unconstrained by existing circumstances. In the same way that the JDC was able to work both within the constraints of its relationships with other national organizations and to create a separate niche for itself, most non-profits regardless of their size can do the same thing in their own communities.

This is a book that should be read by executives, professional staff members, and members of the boards of directors of all non-profit organizations. It is well organized, well written, very informative and a pleasure to read.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program.