Federation Leaders Speak, cont’d

Leadership requires decisions and accountability for those decisions.”
Michael Siegal

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?


Michael Siegal, past Chair of Jewish Federation of Cleveland, Past National Chair of Israel Bonds, current Chair of JFNA:

The Federation has a unique position because it represents collective responsibility to the entire world, without an agenda. While focused primarily on the Jewish worlds, its responsibility extends to those who have no voice nor power. We are about community strength and moral purpose expressed by textual and moral guidance. We build consensus among all constituencies and, for the most part, try to build trust and confidence in our decision-making process. That is not to say that we won’t lead on critical issues, but we must balance the whole community, its donors, recipients, and even those who don’t agree with us. We touch more lives than any organization in the Jewish world and carry out its responsibility to build a safe and moral future.

What the Federation is no longer is an organization that believes it can make everyone’s dream come true. A generation ago, we had a biblical opportunity to rebuild a Jewish nation and in-gather a 2,000 year old dispersed people to its indigenous homeland. We had a European Holocaust in our psyche. We had synagogues that were a true gathering and a learning place.

Now we are challenged by a global communications world that feeds us with false narratives and realities. It is much more difficult to ascertain the truth from fiction. We must provide absolute transparency and aspire to complete trust of our donors, in a much more cynical world. We must believe the (J) of Jewish drive our behaviors. We believe in the stories of our people. Freedom for slavery in Egypt and accepting a moral code of behavior must make the entire world a better place. We must stand up to evil and not back away from those who wish harm to humanity. We can be loud, we can disagree and we must always be humble and respectful to each other. That cannot change.

We know that our resources are limited and many individuals believe the collective is obsolete.

I disagree.

We represent the old and the young, the left, center and right. We represent all streams of practice of our religion from secular to ultraorthodox. We cannot make decisions that will satisfy all or – at times – even the majority because of the resource limitation. We have competition for the dollar and sometimes even for the souls of our people. Leadership requires decisions and accountability for those decisions. We are trying to build a future for our children and grandchildren that allows them to be safe, educated, morally responsible and understand that for the world the Jewish people, however one defines ourselves, must first survive. We are one small family in this world and while some family members stray far from home, we, the Federation are the beacon that will take someone home, whenever and however they choose to return. We must be ready, regardless of circumstance, with tears of joy when that day comes. Always.


Deborah Corber, CEO of Federation CJA, Montreal:

Question #1
Unique among Jewish organizations, Federations are responsible to and for the whole local Jewish community; responsible for understanding the entire Jewish landscape today, projecting how that landscape may evolve and acting accordingly to ensure flourishing communities into the future. Unlike the wide range of philanthropic vehicles – personal and institutional- that have the mandate and the discretion to target resources to particular needs or passions, Federations must balance the diverse needs and realities of their entire communities so as to ensure that the broad field of Jewish need is adequately covered.

Only Federations have the resources, networks and capacity to respond in real time to both emergent and emergency needs: adopting a strategy to support French Jews looking to establish new lives outside of France (emergent), providing immediate support to Jews in need in Ukraine or in Israel in times of conflict (emergency), marshaling thought leaders and political influencers to shape public policy debates and legislative proposals that threaten to harm critical Jewish community interests (emergent).

In whatever ways we may need to evolve to meet the changing realities of the Jewish philanthropic and communal service world, we should never compromise this ability to act on behalf of the whole: there are no other institutional actors to take up this role, and if Federations didn’t exist, we would surely create them.

Question #2
For the reasons outlined above, Federations must continue to lead and to occupy the spaces on matters and in ways that they alone can. But that leadership can no longer be solely top down. Federations today must operate more horizontally, in partnership and collaboration with agencies and other communal actors. We need to lead the way in cultivating strong, respectful and trusting relationships with other organizations so that the communal whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. In an era when authoritarian behavior does not resonate, we need to hone our soft skills so as to effectively influence people and shape outcomes.

This kind of collaborative leadership means pairing Federations’ expertise with that of our partners, so that together, we can accomplish great things. Agencies have expertise in serving particular segments of the community. With agency know-how and Federations’ understanding of the broader landscape and of the community’s donor base, populations can be even better served and donors more deeply engaged. An obvious example of collaboration would be Federations and agencies teaming up – rather than competing – to raise funds for initiatives that align donors’ dreams with high-impact programmatic responses: maximizing total financial resources for better services, while minimizing donor fatigue, confusion and frustration.

Federations need to walk and chew gum at the same time. Since our annual campaigns don’t generate the funds to satisfy every need or aspiration of community agencies (or even of ourselves) we need to strengthen our campaigns which remain our lifeblood, while at the same time increasing planned and endowed giving opportunities. We need to increase our responsiveness to our major donors – since their commitment and generosity sustains our communities – while at the same time broadening our market share. We need to respect the views and sensitivities of existing donors while at the same time expanding our reach to those who may not identify with the Federation model. We need to keep our most committed volunteers engaged, while at the same time making room for younger volunteers to see us as their Federations, too. We need to be ready to respond openly to criticisms from donors at all levels and non-donors alike while at the same time not becoming paralyzed into inaction by that criticism. In each of these cases, we can debate where the appropriate balance lies. But if we are to thrive and to be all that our communities need us to be, we do need to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Question #3
Accountability can be viewed in strict legal terms, or more broadly. On a legalistic approach we could say that Federations are “ultimately” accountable to their donors, institutional recipients of funds, individual beneficiaries of funded programs or services, volunteers, and lay leaders, to name the most obvious stakeholders in Federation business.

But what if we took a broader view of accountability by analogy to elections? What if we thought of our donors as those who voted for us, and non-donors as eligible donors within the broader electorate? That might impel us to find new and innovative ways to connect with a wider range of the ‘electorate’, recognizing that in many important ways, we represent donors (voters) and non-donors (eligible voters) alike.

Here again, though, Federations must seek the balance between satisfying donors (voters) who can use their donations to express their support or rejection, and becoming immobilized by fear of donor anger. Risk management is prudent; in a world that is constantly changing at what feels like warp speed, risk avoidance … is actually risky.


Ted Sokolsky, immediate past CEO of UJA-Federation of Toronto:

1. In my thirty years of work in the Federation field there has been one constant: Federations are doomed to failure and their death is imminent. Despite that, over these three decades, the Jewish Federation system has continued to rally our communities in these turbulent times through the miracles of Operation Exodus and Moses, through support for Israel during four wars, through two crippling Intifadas, through a renaissance of Jewish Identity and Israel Engagement and much, much more.

These are no small feats, and no single private philanthropy or agency or individual could have tackled these challenges over those decades. This is in sharp contrast to an era when so many in our community preferred to sit on the side lines and let societal trends and world politics take over as the only drivers that would have determined our future as a people.

Where would we be today without Operation Exodus? Where would be today without our steadfast support of Israel and where would be today if we hadn’t taken steps to engage the next generation in the Jewish identity and their connections to Israel?

This has all come about because there is one commodity that Jewish Federations inject into our communities that no one else does: collective leadership. It’s a commodity that stands in sharp contrast to those who sit in the bleachers screaming insults and pointing fingers. It’s a commodity that is incredibly valuable and rare these days and can only be created through the singularly unique collaboration of volunteer, professional and philanthropic leadership provided by Federations.

GE used to have a slogan: “Progress is our most important product.” For Federations, our most important product is leadership.

Don’t get me wrong: Jewish Federations aren’t “elected” or “anointed” to lead our communities. Too many people attribute the culture of the electoral process to the Federation system. Federations are not entitled to lead and as soon as they act that way they are doomed. Rather, they have to earn that responsibility each and every day and with each and every issue.

The greatest imperative of any Federation should be to create opportunities for leadership on the challenges of the day and collaborate with all those of good will who want to join them in seeking solutions and opportunities in creating thriving Jewish communities.

Founded on that unique collaboration of volunteers, professionals and philanthropists, no other organized or private entity in the Jewish world is as well equipped, to fulfill that imperative.

2. In recent times in particular, our planning tables have become increasingly uninviting and insular. Too often, new ideas are seen as threats to the Federation’s authority. Moreover, we have become overly cautious due to challenging times and far too timid to adopt bold ideas to take risks with our dwindling capital. It’s a perfect storm.

Interesting enough, Federations need to return to their roots to remain relevant. No longer having a monopoly on major fundraising and major idea-generation, Federations need to return to their prime directive of providing platforms for leadership and collaboration. Our shrinking world-views cannot survive the modern era. Battling for institutional supremacy at the expense of undermining our own value systems will surely make us irrelevant.

Federations were born in a time of limited resources but boundless vision. It is that collective vision that embraced leadership as a means to an end and not an end in itself.

3. Again, we need to return to the primary partnership that makes us unique: volunteers, professionals AND philanthropists working together. Too many of our planning bodies work on the axiom that people’s wealth is inversely proportionate to their intelligence. “Whatever you do, keep the big donors away from our planning … they’ll take over and ruin it for us all”! What modern philanthropy could ever survive with that philosophy?

Mega donors are turning away from Federations because they are being pushed away. They no longer feel the ‘nachat’ from their contributions to Federations that they use to feel. Over the last decades, they sought that nachat with more and more directed giving and then, ultimately, in developing their own initiatives that they now fund with incredible generousity.

Connecting with the grass roots of course is always vital but to sacrifice decades-long relationships with major donors in order to please the grass roots is suicidal. Federations aren’t democracies, they are collaborations and partnerships. Financial contributions aren’t the only currency that drives that partnership but they should not be ignored in order to maintain some sort of distorted sense of political correctness and independence.

This is a time when we need to restore the balance. It is a time to restore trust in our professionals, embolden our volunteers and re-engage our philanthropists. Communal leadership cannot be effective when we ignore the importance of that three-way partnership. When we emphasize one over the other the magic evaporates. The leveraged force of all three working in unison is the unique value-added quotient of Jewish Federations.

It’s time we got back to the business for which we were created: bringing out the best in all of us through collective action and vision. Strengthening and restoring mutual respect for volunteers, professionals and philanthropists – all three together – is how we can get there.


To be continued …