Does the Jewish Community Need a Central COVID Fund? Here’s A Better Strategy for Addressing the Crisis

By Andrés Spokoiny

In the current crisis, we are hearing calls in the Jewish media and in leadership conversations to launch an “emergency campaign” creating a “central fund” to “save” the Jewish community system from the devastating impact of the Covid-19 crisis. Funders, donors, and federations should contribute, the argument goes, to a billion-dollar fund to be administered by some form of central body. This centralized body would then expertly allocate funds to the areas of greatest need. Some proponents even imagine such a body headed by a “COVID czar.” Others cite historical examples, such as the campaign for Soviet Jewry, in which the Jewish community successfully dealt with emergencies through a centralized mechanism, as a model for how the community should act now.

It’s easy to see the allure of an all-powerful central body, but it’s not the best approach. Those of us in position of leadership need to do what is desirable, possible and workable in today’s reality.

Let’s assume for a second that major funders would agree to give money to a centralized fund whose allocations are determined by others. (They won’t but for argument’s sake.) Would it be a good idea? How would such a fund decide how much should go to JCCs as opposed to synagogues, or day schools, or summer camps? How much would be for immediate support versus long-term relief? How much would go to established organizations versus startups? How would the fund decide “who shall live and who shall die”? In dreaming of a centralized fund, we presuppose that those making those decisions would be politically and ideologically neutral, but in reality, they would not be; they would be leaders of organizations that they want to save; they would be committed to causes that they care deeply about; they would have personal relations with the people who are going to be affected by their choices. It’s not that these leaders can’t see beyond their organizational hats, it’s that the decisions involved will be ideological and therefore subjective.

Past emergency campaigns, like the ones that federations conducted on behalf of Soviet Jewry, were focused, not systemic. They were purposefully designed as second-tier campaigns so that the needs of Soviet Jews wouldn’t compete with the needs of local agencies.

When we are dealing with a goal that is clearly defined (move a million Jews out of the USSR), it makes sense to work through a centralized body. The solutions aren’t simple, but they are mostly technical. The questions that the central body needs to resolve are mostly in the realm of “how” but not of “what” and “why.” But in our current crisis, questions of “how” pale compared to those of “what” and “why.” Most decisions will be mostly ideological and not technical. In a context of resources that are not endless, a central body will need to decide if, for example, campus engagement is more important to Jewish life than day schools or synagogues, and there’s no “technical” answer to that question, because even the way of measuring that is ideological.

And because those ideological questions can’t be fully sorted out, the allocation process will likely be an arbitrary formula reached after lengthy negotiations, a formula that will be mostly political and ideological and not in a cold and rational evaluation of needs, simply because in our field, such a detached evaluation is impossible.

It’s also important to note that certain things that were possible in the past are no longer feasible. That’s not good or bad; it’s just the way in which our community has evolved. It was easy to centralize resources in the past, because most Jewish philanthropic assets were concentrated in a few Jewish institutions. Today, based on conservative estimates, only 15 percent of Jewish philanthropic assets are held by communal organizations. The Jewish philanthropic field is atomized, and most of its funds are mission restricted. The leaders of a foundation established to fight poverty may want to give to a general pool that will fund all communal needs, but it legally can’t.

It’s understandable why many are drawn to the idea of a central body with a brilliant leader who would coordinate responses and allocate resources. But even if such an all-powerful top-down structure can work at the national level to coordinate the health care system (and whether that is possible in the United States is arguable), it can never work in the Jewish community’s network of voluntary organizations. Even if its leader were the most brilliant and benevolent individual, she can’t force people to give money if they don’t want to. And when things are ideological and not technical, how can she decide that one organization is more important than others? While it would be relatively easy for someone at the national level to send respirators to the hardest hit areas, because that decision is based on hard data, the same doesn’t apply to ideological and subjective decisions.

But the problematic, if not altogether impossible, nature of a centralized approach doesn’t mean that no collective action is needed or doable. What can work?

Localized Emergency Responses

While a centralized national fund may not work, a local one might. Most Jewish federations know the needs of their communities and have the delivery mechanisms to serve a large swath of the population. They have already resolved many of the ideological questions inherent to the allocation processes – or they have mechanisms that have been honed over decades. Their allocation processes may not be perfect, but, more than anybody else, they have the “finger on the pulse” of local needs. Their proximity to the stakeholders and the immediacy of the needs makes a centralized needs-based allocation more likely and effective at the local level than at the national one. In those cities in which federations have an ongoing working relationship with major foundations, a centralized approach is even easier.

Centralized by Sector

A central fund to address all needs won’t work, but specific funds by sector can. Such funds can avoid endless debates pitting the importance of one type of Jewish engagement against others; and secondly, they will bring together funders that are already invested or interested in a field and, in many cases, are used to working together. As a vignette, the sectorial working groups of funders that JFN is convening (some ongoing, some in response to the crisis) are resulting in actionable ideas to assist a field and, in some cases, are leading to the establishment of new support funds by sector (for summer camps, arts and culture, social service agencies, Israeli NGOs, etc.). This may indicate that collective action is easier when defined narrowly. The notion of “saving the community system” may be impossible for funders to embrace, but “saving the field of (fill in the blank: Jewish Innovations; Jewish Arts; Summer Camps; etc.)” is doable. A fund focused on, say, Jewish day schools, can craft specific responses for the sector, ones based on deep knowledge of the field, the challenges and the actors therein.

Loan Funds

Loan funds are an area in which a centralized approach can work. Why? Because loans can be sector-agnostic and mostly respond to technical criteria, not ideological ones. In other words, a loan fund doesn’t need to make a judgment call on whether JCC X is more worthwhile than Jewish Family Service Y; it can be set up in a way whereby if the organization fulfills the legal and financial criteria of the fund, it can receive a loan. Therefore, loan programs can be implemented at both the local and the national level through consortia of funders and federations. Also, being loans and not grants, they give funders flexibility to “move out of their lane” – a foundation may not be permitted by its charter to make a grant outside of its remit, but a loan can be considered an impact investment and not a grant.

Loans also give funders and nonprofits time to evaluate longer-term needs and to elucidate questions like the extent of government support available, the duration of the crisis, etc.

Coordination is the New Centralization

Centralization of funds may not work, but coordination can and must. While it would be impossible and probably impractical to make funders donate to a central fund, it would be both possible and necessary to encourage them to look at a centralized map of giving. The key role central agencies and national umbrellas can play in this crisis is to map needs and philanthropic responses so that funders (either individually or by clusters) can focus on gaps and unattended needs or find the intersection between their missions and the needs of the field. Organizations like the Jewish Federations of North America, Jewish Funders Network, Foundation for Jewish Camp, the umbrella organizations for the religious streams, and others, need to be catalysts of collective action when possible, rather than seek to impose a collective top-down solution. The model needs to be one in which national organizations identify emerging needs, ideas and groups of funders, and then support and facilitate the work of those interested and willing. Our organizations need to be conveners of “coalitions of the willing” around issues, needs and programs. This approach can capture many of the benefits of centralization.

Focus on Individuals

Another area that can be centralized is assistance to individual Jews who are affected by the crisis. This type of help is “sector agnostic,” and it creates a positive feedback loop. When a person or family falls into poverty, they set into motion a domino effect that affects the entire community: That individual can’t pay membership fees, school tuition or synagogue dues. So, a fund that helps individuals can be done, locally and nationally, without getting into complex ideological questions about the merit of the different type of organizations. Individual Jews should, of course receive welfare support for basic needs, but they can also receive “Jewish Life” grants that allow them to engage Jewishly in any way they choose to.

My point here is not to promote the benefits, or get bogged down in the details, of any specific approach such as loan funds or Jewish life grant, but to emphasize that, while a single, centralized solution isn’t the answer, coordinated, local and targeted approaches are.

Furthermore, the “day after” of the crisis will require innovation and creativity. It will demand a lot of trial and error, and nobody knows what will and won’t work in the post-COVID world. In contexts of uncertainty, decentralized approaches work better. Central bodies with complex governance structures, that operate by consensus or negotiation are structurally less suited for innovation, as those structures need to find common ground among different stakeholders and that generally leads to less risk taking.

In times of crisis, especially in a pandemic, it’s normal to try to find a miracle cure. (And I certainly hope someone does find a miracle cure to the coronavirus itself!) But we need to accept that this crisis doesn’t have a simple solution. A “Billion Dollar Fund,” a “Jewish New Deal”, a “COVID czar” are fine and well-intentioned ideas that look good on paper and seem simple and straightforward, but they are anything but. They are possibly unworkable, and even if they weren’t, their efficacy is far from guaranteed. Pursuing chimeric solutions wastes valuable time, energy and resources. As leaders it’s our responsibility to accept reality and focus on practical, smaller-scale, sector-specific solutions that can work. The aggregate of all those will be surely larger than any central fund and will produce a richer and more vibrant result.

Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO, Jewish Funders Network.