Expanding Options in an Expanding Community

[Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma Now, a curated monthly conversation on Jewish Sensibilities. These articles, examining the differences between philanthropy and tzedakah, originally appeared in October 2001.]

By Barry Shrage

Jewish federations are in the process of profound and radical change. Some of these changes appear to be problematic. Mega-donors are developing new program ideas and ”imposing” them on local and national systems. At the same time, federations (and other Jewish philanthropic organizations) are paying more attention to major donors and providing many more giving options. These options seem to have the potential to ”subvert the process” and move power from “the community” to the ”big givers.” Yet, at the same time, many federations, including the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, are broadening the idea of community and expanding participation in the federation idea to include synagogues and grassroots organizations. Are federations becoming more elitist or more democratic?

While increased attention to federations’ largest donors certainly presents serious challenges (as well as opportunities), it is important to remember how our system developed. Federations were never a model of broadly based, participatory democracy. Moreover the current planning process in most federations has tended to emphasize stability and conformity over innovation and change. In fact, the rise of the mega-donors can be seen, in part, as a failure of the national federation system to attract and maintain the interest of the very largest donors. Mega-donors and foundations had little choice but to create their own national synagogue, day school, Jewish camping, and Israel travel initiatives because the American Jewish establishment seemed slow to take risks on a new national agenda.

In that sense, the new attention to donors with ideas and vision has been a good thing for the system, moving us from old to new priorities, and opening the way for the Jewish renaissance that is gaining ground in the American Jewish community. Of course, taken to an extreme, this good idea could lead to chaos. In Boston, we are trying to place the energy of those donors into the context of a broadly based community plan. Through a strategic planning process involving thousands of voices, we created an outline for systematic change, new programs, and new support for groups and institutions that provides a clear vision of where our community is going. Most of our largest donors make their gifts within the broad outline of the Strategic Plan, picking significant pieces of the agenda to make their own and to translate in their own way. Moreover, even when donors have chosen to bring their own new ideas to the table, we have generally been able to incorporate them into this overall vision. Rather than taking our focus away from the Strategic Plan, this has greatly enhanced our ability to implement and fund a new vision for Boston Jewry focused on building and supporting real grassroots communities of “Torah, tzedek and chesed.”

A recent CJP assessment conducted by McKinsey and Company recommended that we focus fundraising energy on givers with the highest potential. It also suggested we adopt a new and far more serious community-building program separate from a campaign designed to link all donors and the community as a whole in a network of services, communication, and volunteerism. Gateway institutions – congregations, JCCs and day schools – working closely with the commission on Jewish continuity and its array of community-building programs, will serve to increase the number of new participants while significantly expanding communal engagement and strengthening “real” community life.

By expanding options for donors as well as including synagogues and new grassroots organizations in our network, we can engage the passion of our givers while also increasing the size of our “network” and “reach” as a federation. Not only do we hope to engage and become philanthropic advisors to growing numbers of larger donors, but we are also able to remain a federation of small donors. We can achieve these goals in three ways:

  1. Strengthen the ability of congregations, JCCs, and other grassroots organizations to attract, inspire, and engage Jews. Involvement and democracy at the federation level can have no meaning if the vast majority of Jews are completely uninvolved and turned off.
  2. Understand that there is a vast difference between the attention paid to donors in a fundraising process and the attention to Jews of every kind in the delivery of service and the development of community.
  3. Pay more attention to strategic direction and communal vision within which donor choice can find coherence and meaning.

Vision is at the heart of the matter. If communities fail to develop an inspiring vision, key donors will follow their own dreams. Eventually, communities that continue to depend on “business as usual” will find it increasingly difficult to fund even programs of the past, let alone the possibilities that beckon us all.

Barry Shrage is President of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.