Federation Leaders Speak, cont’d

We continue the discussion with Federation leaders; as a reminder, the questions posed:

  1. How does Jewish Federation differ from its many philanthropic competitors, foundations, donor advised vehicles, private philanthropic consortiums and individual direct service agencies? What is it that only Federations represent, only Federations do and only Federations can provide? What is or should be the unique added value of today’s Federation?
  2. Looking at the role of Jewish Federation a generation ago, what is it that Federations can no longer do or be? What need they become and how might they get there? What changes must occur to continue to make Federations as critical to the life of Jewish people as they were in times of upheaval and crisis? What must remain unchanged?
  3. To whom are Federations ultimately accountable and how must that accountability be expressed? Specifically, how can Federations be answerable to the grass roots of the community and how can it reconnect with a changing Jewish public that often demands participation and a changing global Jewish reality where consensus is often elusive? And how can Federations do that while depending so much on the contributions of relatively few large donors?

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Cynthia Shapira, incoming Chair of Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh:

Question 1.
I don’t agree with the framing of this question. It is counterproductive to view other philanthropic vehicles as Federation competitors. All are, or should be, aimed at the overarching goal of creating a dynamic, vital Jewish community now and into the future. We don’t compete if we keep our eye on the prize. If we could rethink “success” in terms of the greater goal we share rather than competing for (particularly major) donor resources, generations beyond will be the winners.

I share the point of view expressed in this forum by others who are wiser and more experienced than I regarding the broad base that is the unique quality of the Federation movement. The very point of Federations and the parent organization, JFNA, is that they can fairly represent the whole community with its religious, political, and cultural diversity – welcoming, serving, and standing for all Jews, without close inspection as to how that community even is defined. This also permits Federations to fulfill the role of enabling every Jew to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah. Giving to Jewish causes is an expression of individual Jewish identity and values. Jewish communal philanthropy is a powerful expression of membership and commitment to the Jewish people. It is through Federation that I proudly join with Jews who don’t necessarily look, think, or act like me to support a wide range of Jewish (and secular) institutions.

Question 2.
Federations developed as the product of a particular time in American and Jewish history. One hundred years ago, communities Federated in response to increasing social service and educational needs due to immigration, in line with prevailing Progressive movement ideals around efficiency in collecting and allocating philanthropic funds, to provide needed social and educational services. The organizational model continued to work through the eras of Jewish populations in wholesale distress, the founding and building of the State of Israel, and the effort to break down social, educational, and professional barriers. Now, Jews can identify in a multitude of ways (sometimes to our chagrin) and they are free and resourced to express philanthropy as individually as they wish.

So, one hundred years later, we have to modernize our purpose, our structure, and our methodologies. The central idea of caring for the Jewish community and ensuring its energetic future hasn’t changed. The great challenge has evolved from helping immigrants become Americans, to helping Americans find their Jewishness.

In that vein, perhaps we should rethink Federation as a fundraising organization. Federations are, or should be, compelled by a defined mission to be achieved and an educated understanding of Jewish values and thought-driven by outstanding talent and strategies, and focused on results. How we define those results and how we measure our progress toward success are complicated, but not impossible, concepts. We are a smart people; we can figure this out. If we don’t, and if there isn’t consequent alignment of structure, strategy, outreach and cooperation with other players in this space, performance-based incentives, and metrics, the Federation movement will become increasingly irrelevant. Much more critically, we will not be able to achieve the real goal that we all share – a dynamic and vital Jewish present and future.

Question 3.
A truly impact and results driven Federation system is accountable to the Jewish people. If it can achieve the “rethink” of Federation in this way, the money will follow. The pull between broad consensus and response to major donors is a product of allowing fundraising to be the raison d’être. Federations must take the responsibility for moving the needle on strengthening Jewish identity, working from a knowledge of, and unwavering commitment to, Jewish values. The key is to commit to excellence in all we do and to stick with what Federations do best – embracing and committing to the strength and future of Am Yisroel. This is the first step – before we talk about tactics. Then Federation can develop an “investor prospectus” that will resonate with the grassroots, major donors, and everyone in between. The value of investing in Federation will equate to investing in our future.