Do We Need National Organizations

by Joe Kanfer and Marcella Kanfer Rolnick

2014 will see the closing of two organizations that have been part of the landscape of American Jewish life for more than a generation. The announcement towards the end of last year by the Foundation for Jewish Culture (FJC) that it decided to wind down its operations, following soon after a similar announcement from JESNA (Jewish Education Service of North America), was greeted with relative equanimity in the Jewish media. In part, this may be due to the fact that, to their credit, the leaders of both organizations have thus far managed the close down process with dignity and deliberation, and without recriminations or desperate appeals for support. But, it likely also reflects a sentiment apparently shared by many observers that changing times not only made national organizations like FJC and JESNA financially unsustainable, but rendered the very model of national umbrella organizations serving a broad field and acting primarily as intermediary agents and support systems outmoded.

But, is this premise true? And should we be entirely sanguine that these two long-standing national actors are quietly passing from the scene? Certainly, the federations, which created both FJC (in 1960) and JESNA (in 1981), showed no evident interest in rallying to their sides, though the group of federations most involved in funding national organizations, the “Alliance,” has initiated a study as to how it might continue to support Jewish education at the national level with JESNA no longer on the scene. The immediate precipitating cause of both organizations’ decisions to close shop was the dramatic and rapid decrease in the financial support that federations were prepared to provide them. Was this a considered decision by federations about the merits of and need for these two agencies? The evidence is unclear, since, as far as we know, there was no formal evaluation of the need for these organizations or assessment of the value they provided. It is hard to avoid the sense that alongside any other rationale, the decisions by numerous federations to reduce or eliminate funding to JESNA and FJC also reflected their own struggles to raise funds as umbrella organizations, and the fact that organizations operating nationally (as opposed to locally or overseas) have always been at the bottom of their list of funding priorities. Still, the failure of the federations to take any active steps to maintain – and then to “save” – their own national organizations is a clear indication that they, by and large, did not see the case for them as a compelling one.

Perhaps ironically, the fact that both FJC and JESNA were closely connected to the federation system may have worked against them in gaining support from the private sources that might have filled the hole, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, in their budgets due to the dramatic decline in their federation allocations. Both FJC and JESNA continued to receive enthusiastic support from a number of individuals and foundations even as they faced the prospect of closing their doors. However, many other supporters of Jewish arts, culture, and education apparently agreed with the notion that funding the work of these national organizations was less productive than focusing their resources on specific programs that engage end-users directly or on specialist organizations that work intensively in specific sub-domains. Perhaps they assumed that the federation system would take care of its own creations (or that they didn’t want the federation system’s leftovers); perhaps they felt that “established” organizations could not be “innovative” (a characterization we contest); perhaps they just did not see the value in the kind of work that FJC and JESNA undertook, or felt that others (including themselves) could do it better or more efficiently; or perhaps it is still a very small sub-segment of the Jewish funding community that really gets the unique value of national organizations. (See Marcella’s piece in eJewishPhilanthropy, http://ejpprod.wpengine.com/act-global-to-think-local/, on this topic.) In all events, both JESNA and FJC wound up in a kind of nonprofit “no man’s land” – insufficiently funded by federations to sustain the infrastructure of community support and services they were expected to provide, and insufficiently attractive to private funders and foundations to compete effectively in today’s tight philanthropic market.

This leads back to the central question: Is there a need and rationale for organizations like FJC and JESNA today? In answering this, it’s important to understand what exactly these organizations did – not necessarily program by program, but in their essence. Whatever image federation and private funders may have held of the two, as they evolved, both actually played three primary roles: first, as advocates, catalysts, and supporters of needed innovation in their respective domains; second, as facilitators of connections across a variety of boundaries within these domains; and third, as resources to individuals and organizations doing the actual educational, artistic, and cultural work. Whether this is what they were understood as doing by those less familiar with their activities is unclear, and perhaps both FJC and JESNA can be faulted for failing to convey these critical aspects of their work as effectively as they surely would have wished to do.

But, the larger Jewish and philanthropic community, federated and private, must also be held accountable for failing to recognize how these organizations evolved and what they were able to achieve as much more than “service agencies.” Without trying to detail their records fully, it is worth noting the vibrant organizations on today’s Jewish landscape they midwifed, incubated, and helped guide to maturity – including the Association for Jewish Studies, the Council of American Jewish Museums, the Covenant Foundation, and Bikkurim – and the areas in which they and funding partners pioneered new initiatives – documentary films, fellowships for artists, program evaluation, educator recruitment and recognition – whose impact has rippled across the Jewish community. Both organizations became hubs and catalysts for bringing together practitioners and proponents of Jewish arts, culture, and education working in different sub-fields and geographic areas who might otherwise have had little opportunity to interact. Both organizations also became resources and repositories of knowledge and know-how for individuals and groups operating on the front lines and the cutting edge in their fields, helping those practitioners and their supporters in countless small and often unnoticed ways with a piece of advice, a connection, an opportunity to showcase their work. (After announcing that they would be shutting down operations, FJC and JESNA received more than a few calls from grantees and clients asking somewhat plaintively, “who else can we talk to now that understands and cares about what we do?”)

In citing what they did and achieved, our intent is not to argue that the Foundation for Jewish Culture or JESNA should or could have been preserved in their current forms. In fact, the organizational model on which they were built is outmoded and unsustainable. It is quite possible that both organizations tried to do too much and were not sufficiently agile to respond quickly to a changing communal and philanthropic landscape (especially the near-collapse of a federation funding system for national organizations). The growing desire of funders to be able to follow their gifts and see concrete results on the ground is not only an unalterable reality; it is a spur to more giving. The rise of special-purpose organizations that focus attention on specific issue areas or particular segments of the cultural and educational ecosystem – and the growth in philanthropic support for these organizations – is also a positive development in American Jewish life, even if it renders broad-based field-wide organizations like JESNA and FJC problematic.

However, we also believe that something critical will be lost if we do not have entities – whether as organizations, networks, or some other form – that have the ability and responsibility to look at Jewish cultural and educational life holistically, to identify unmet needs, to incubate new responses, and most of all, to connect the many disparate actors who must learn from one another and work together more effectively if these domains as a whole – and with them Jewish life – are to thrive. The crying need of the hour is not just more programs and initiatives (though we will always need and should encourage these). It is taking steps toward collective action – using the manifold resources available in more synergistic ways to tackle big challenges and pursue big aspirations. This can’t happen, experience argues, without “backbone” organizations that can bring multiple actors together and help them weave their visions, identify and adopt effective practice, undertake complementary agendas, build robust networks for ongoing communication, and hold themselves accountable for the outcomes they seek to achieve. Individual organizations and even individual communities cannot do what we need on their own. In an era of unprecedented connectivity and mobility, we must indeed “think global and act local,” but we must also “think local and act global” as well.

FJC and JESNA were not the organizations that the 21st century American Jewish community needs. We will never know if they could have evolved further to become these. But, their closing does not mean that they do not leave a vacuum nor that national frameworks that connect dispersed actors playing diverse roles in dynamic fields are superfluous. We think that the closing of JESNA and FJC merits more than a shrug of the shoulders or a simple response that their time had come and gone. It calls on all of us who care about Jewish arts, culture, education and the vitality of Jewish life as a whole to ask what comes next. What challenges must still be met if these domains are to flourish, how will we meet them, and what roles might new forms of national activity play in doing so? FJC and JESNA have both pointed with justifiable pride to the legacies they leave behind. We will do full honor to those legacies if we build on them by learning the lessons of what works and what doesn’t, what is needed and what isn’t, and by using our imaginations and energies to build frameworks that can carry their work forward to new heights.

Marcella Kanfer Rolnick is Chair of the Board and Joe Kanfer a member of the Board of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.