Federations and Foundations Take on Innovating and Sustaining

A Dialogue with Jeffrey Solomon and John Ruskay
Interviewed by Noel Rubinton

Two years ago in this journal, Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP), and John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, had a dialogue about the relationship between federations and foundations. Both men are veterans of the Jewish scene – Solomon was a top UJA-Federation executive before going to ACBP in 1997; Ruskay worked in a number of organizations before joining UJA-Federation and becoming the top professional in 1999.

In this article, Solomon and Ruskay continue their conversation about federations and foundations, this time focusing on their efforts on behalf of both innovation and sustainability. And in an era of heightened attention to Israel, they speak about efforts being made to boost American Jewish engagement with Israel.

Like two years ago, the moderator for the conversation was Noel Rubinton, director of editorial content at UJA-Federation, and he was aided by Jason Soloway, vice president at ACBP.

Noel Rubinton: How are federations and foundations doing these days on the tasks of sustaining and innovating?

John Ruskay: I met yesterday with the executives of human service agencies in New York involved with UJA-Federation’s Connect to Care. It is a major initiative created in response to acute job loss in the Jewish community. Connect to Care has now served more than 28,000 men and women in the New York Jewish community at seven multiservice centers – one in each of New York City’s boroughs; one in Westchester and one in Long Island – bringing together family services, vocational counseling, pro bono legal services, and emergency loans, in partnership with synagogues. This initiative has been funded from our endowment as one of our responses to the economic crisis.

Connect to Care has served mostly middle-class people, a segment of our community that had not previously turned to most of our large human services agencies. Those agencies, in partnership with government, have tended to serve those at the lowest end of the economic ladder – yes, large numbers of Jews and even larger numbers of non-Jews.

Said differently, Connect to Care is reweaving the community and providing a new way for the largest human service agencies – which set the standard for care – to reconnect and serve a middle-class Jewish community. The subject on the table at yesterday’s meeting was, with funding from the endowment projected to conclude, how would we work together – the agencies and UJA-Federation – to harvest the learnings, sustain that which we have found to be valuable, and forge a new vision of a caring community in New York.

You have here a federation deliberating about sustaining an initiative it started. What are the implications of this for five years ahead – the long view is the issue, whether you’re in what are regarded by some as sustaining institutions or by some as startups.

Jeffrey Solomon: Clay Christensen wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma, and it’s the classic book on innovation. In short, he says IBM could not develop Windows. It took a Microsoft to develop Windows. Microsoft could not develop Google. It took a Google to develop Google. The dilemma of innovation is that ultimately you get a market and you have to focus on that market, and therefore you can’t make the great leaps. The structural differences between foundations and federations make it easier for foundations because they don’t have the market that federations do.

Connect to Care is the perfect example of profound innovation. It was profound innovation because the conditions of the market changed. Suddenly there were unemployed middle-class Jews who needed you in ways they didn’t need you before 2008. It created the conditions for change that allowed the federation to become the innovative leader in this arena. In terms of what do professionals take from this, we need to go back to the literature and take a look at the differences. So when we talk about passing lanes, the simple thing about foundations is they have no constituencies.

Ruskay: They have a constituency of one, or three, or a board.

Solomon: It’s a constituency if aligned and if given the right professional direction. Too many foundations in the name of innovation go into something for three years and then they’re out. There’s no sustainability and in my view no responsibility. No venture capitalist would go into a project for three years and out.

Ruskay: So doesn’t the cycle of innovation then need to be sustained? Therefore the challenge as professionals is what does it take now in this time of constrained resources everywhere, for most foundations as well as federations, to create the circumstances and contexts where professionals are more likely to both sustain what is essential and lead to change. The world is changing. And whether you’re sitting at a foundation or a federation or a national agency or in a synagogue, wherever you are, the challenge is the same.

When we had to reduce both grants and administrative budget, it forced the question, “What’s essential?” What’s essential to sustain? What’s essential to respond to a changing environment? With the exception of this journal, there aren’t a whole lot of written places for this discussion. The diffusion of websites, which one can recognize as positive, makes it more difficult to have a sustained conversation about anything.

Solomon: I would add that we in the Jewish community, far less than the secular community, have not taken advantage of cheap information. So when you have to make those tough decisions, you’re not able to make them with enough information. You’ve got to go with what you think is right as opposed to being told OK, I have a choice. Either a client is going to be seen in counseling once every two weeks or once every week. Or the kosher meal that gets delivered to a home-bound person is going to happen five times a week with a weekend package rather than seven times a week with the companionship that comes when food is delivered.

Shame on us for not insisting on information systems and benchmarking that give you that kind of specificity.

Rubinton: What do each of you think is the biggest risk of innovation? What scares you?

Ruskay: Little. The word “innovation” per se is at 90,000 feet. I constantly want to understand how serious is the thinking, how serious is the planning? Who’s the leadership, as the quality of leadership matters so significantly.

We’ve seen one of the major foundations in America invest a half-billion dollars in trying to reform major urban education systems 15 years ago. It was regarded as a failure. Do I condemn that? No. Because the truth is you need to learn from success and failure. That’s a lot of money, but that was a foundation able to invest and let’s assume for the moment the leadership of that foundation harvested the best learning.

You know from science that you learn by experimentation and failure. I’m pleased that our federation has been able to invest more than many others in experimentation. Most of the learning is really positive. There have been some disappointments. I defend that. I say how else are we going to learn how to reach out to the 20s and 30s? For a long time people said we had not a clue how to reach them. We need to experiment and provide money to places – if you have confidence in the leadership, if the thinking seems solid, the track records are solid.

The balance of sustaining and innovation and how much to invest in both is always a challenge. This is a moment in time when the Jewish community needs to experiment. But look, I’m sitting with a guy, Jeff Solomon, one of the people who, with his partners, led to Birthright. This is a program that’s now had enough credibility, enough positive experience, enough research, and there are tens of thousands of kids who want to go who can’t go. Is this an innovation issue? This is a funding-level issue now. I hope to work with Jeff and others to figure out a way that the community can handle this. So is that sustaining or innovating? It was innovative and now is a huge issue of funding.

Rubinton: Jeff, what scares you about innovation?

Solomon: Little scares me about the kind of innovation that John talks about that’s well thought through, that is not about somebody’s ego and need to innovate. But I want to pick up on lessons of failure.

The success of Birthright is built directly on the failure of something called the Israel Experience.

A $19 million initiative funded by our foundation, it was an experiment to bring more high school students to Israel. It was an utter failure. At the end of seven years, not one more high school kid went as a result of that $19 million expenditure. The 300,000 kids who’ve gone on Birthright are the success of that failure. Everything we learned from that failure – from the age of the kids who went, the structure of the system, evaluation, everything – has led to this success.

This is no different from what goes on in a good medical laboratory. Except it’s much more complicated because we’re not dealing with cells or animals on which we can experiment.

Rubinton: Let’s talk about Israel and how federations and foundations are dealing with innovating and sustaining there. Peter Beinart’s article in the New York Review of Books kicked up a lot of dust when it came out this past spring. I reread it in preparation for this conversation and this time it seemed like an urgent call for innovation by the Jewish community. What do federations and foundations need to do in Israel, besides Birthright?

Solomon: I actually think that Peter Beinart was generous in terms of the American Jewish institutions sliding to failure. It goes well beyond the institutions he’s identified. It goes to every congregational school, many day schools, camps, others that have not built the connection to Israel into the DNA of young Jews. It represents a potential opportunity for us.

We’re doing something interesting. We helped start a program called Reboot, focused on catalyzing the creation of contemporary Jewish content and how ritual can be redefined for today’s younger, more assimilated population.

We’re bringing together a group of North American Rebooters and Israeli Reboot types, people who are successful not in Jewish communal services but in the arts, in television, in music. We’re saying here’s Beinart’s article: Is this important to you? What do you suggest be done about it? We’re beginning a dialogue between the most creative young American Jews and the most creative young Israeli Jews to see where they want to go with it.

We’ve got a parallel process of foundation and funders, asking what do they want to do. This had been planned before the Beinart article. The Beinart article became a way of identifying what we were hoping to do.

But the whole question is one that John and I have talked about on a number of occasions over many years: What is the relationship between Israel and North America? Israel and world Jewry? This is one that has been on the edge of being troubling for some time. Beinart oversimplifies the causes. The causes are deeper and have been in existence for some time and not only related to the matzav, the situation.

Ruskay: It is a very significant challenge to Israel, to American Jewry, to world Jewry. We don’t know what it means to forge the connection of Jews to Israel. The conflation of Israel advocacy and Israel education has meant that whole generations of Jews have never been provided context to develop their deep level, deep tissue connection to Israel.

We are in the early stage on this. This is like the renewal in the 1970s and 1980s when a small group worked to alert Jewish leadership to the growing challenge – and opportunity – of living in the open society, of assimilation. New ideas needed to emerge; pilots were funded; experimentation supported. This is similar to where we find ourselves with the bonds of young North American Jews to Israel, but external challenges – from Iran to delegitimization – are very serious.

Basically, for the last 60 years we’ve invited American Jews to come and cheer. With the glory of the rebirth of Israel and all that that meant, we came and we cheered. And we did that for all the right reasons. But who was capable of dealing with alternative narratives? Where have we provided context for American Jews to struggle through what are complicated issues?

Most North American Jews are basically liberal nationalists but Israel, at least the Zionism that prevailed, is a conservative nationalism. As a community –  from Jewish education to Birthright trips – we have avoided dealing with issues like this and others.

UJA-Federation is seeking to forge an initiative that will provide an opportunity in those places of higher Jewish learning for future rabbis, Jewish educators, and Jewish communal workers to take a course we’ve tentatively titled “Wrestle with Israel.”

We assume that if they – and ultimately we – wrestle through those issues and develop their own views on Israel, it will strengthen connection and engagement. They and we will not only be cheering. We will be engaged in helping to foster the Israel that we believe can actualize its values and strengthen our people. You need to really be prepared to say if more people emerge deeply connected to American for Safe Israel or Americans for Peace Now, it deepens connection, bonds, and engagement.

We don’t have enough Jews who can legitimate Israel, having struggled through the tough issues. Someone said to me that you’ve got to understand when people do this, when they wrestle through these issues, some might drop out. I said you’d better believe that when they struggle through these issues, they’re going to, in fact like us, end up in it, obsessed, right or left, religious or secular, wherever they are. But cheering alone will not form connection, and the Beinart article itself has hopefully served as a mini-wake up call.

Jason Soloway: To ask a follow-up question, where does that then leave our friends at AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, ADL?

Ruskay: Their work is obviously essential. You have to work long term, but you also have to worry about the United States today. You have to worry about deep challenges in the U.S./Israel relationship. So what Jeff spoke about earlier is about the ability of some foundations to really focus in a laser-like way. The defense organizations, those responsible for the U.S./Israel relations have to continue to do their work, but others – whether it be foundations, educators, foundations, heads of synagogues – need to think through what does it mean to forge connections to make sure they have constituencies behind them.

Solomon: Today, there are so many articulate spokespeople for Israel. But I think if you go to Christian youth conferences, you see more pro-Israel energy than going to some Jewish youth conferences.

Let me use an example. Hillel, which tries to represent the broadest view of campus life, is struggling with this issue. It is causing the beginnings of concerns among a number of donors who see Hillel as being a cheerleader. Your point about engagement and struggling is absolutely correct, but how do you encourage struggling when your supporters are saying we want more cheerleaders.

Ruskay: It’s interesting. I’ve recently been in meetings dealing with delegitimization. I do believe a critical focus now is to work on developing Jewish leadership young and old who can legitimate Israel.

Rubinton: We’ve been talking about a great deal of work, both innovating and sustaining, that’s being done by both foundations and federations. In our conversation two years ago, you both said that federations and foundations needed to learn to dance together better and work together more. How is it going?

Ruskay: We’re dancing. I would call it slow dancing.

Solomon: The dancing is going better. As I move around the country I see in many communities federations and foundations working together, especially on local issues. I’ll use Cincinnati as an example. The Cincinnati federation and the Jewish Hospital Foundation in Cincinnati have a strategic partnership that is meeting both of their objectives and is deep and serious. Two years ago when we did this exchange, we were focused on national initiatives. Where one gets away from the national initiatives, the dancing is significantly better. At the level of national initiatives, it’s beginning to get better.

Ruskay: The sense of conflict has abated. Not gone. It feels less intense.

Solomon: I do share that view. I would add another component to it, which is a sense of common purpose. I really believe in the context of this journal and the Jewish Communal Service Association there’s a sense in both the foundations and the federations that they’re part of this same field. In many ways the journal reflects that, including the fact that these kinds of dialogues take place. The current president of this association is a federation executive and consults regularly with foundation executives on how to use the field to be a unifying principle.

And were it not for the impact of the recession, we would probably be seeing more and more federation professionals moving to foundations and foundation professionals moving into federations. The extent of unification becomes much more powerful as people see it as a field. So we are learning to dance more. I think we’re over the worst of it. At one time the foundations were seen, incorrectly but seen, as a piece of the threatening force to the federation movement. I don’t think people see it that way now.

There have been some irresponsible foundation leaders who see themselves as alternatives to federations. Because their father or grandfather was a federation leader, they don’t want to be a federation leader, don’t want to set foot in the federation. We can’t let those issues that have nothing to do with how we operate, but have to do with autobiography, get in the way of the progress of the field.

Ruskay: I agree with what Jeff said. There’s a recognition that we’re in a multipolar world including in the Jewish world. Having said that, there’s also a recognition that federations are here to stay for a long time, they have core responsibilities, and some of the foundations are spending down. That’s regrettable on multiple fronts. If we had imagined that there were going to be by now, two decades later after Bronfman, a hundred Bronfman foundations of that size – I regret that we don’t have that.

The Jewish world would be stronger, including federations, if you had a hundred forces of that size. It’d be a little intense, but it would be stronger. I regret that’s not yet happened. It intimately relates to Jewish identity.

The Bronfman foundation, that is the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, was established in 1986. So that is 25 years ago. Around the same time came the Wexner Foundation and Cummings Foundation. Steinhardt was shortly thereafter. There are other foundations, but I’m sorry to tell you this, we don’t have 50 of these. If we had more of them, there’d be more effort to strengthen the Jewish community in innovative ways, sustaining ways, experimental ways, partnership ways. Federations are here to stay for a long time. Foundations are as well. We’re learning how to figure out how to max that.

Solomon: When John talks about the earlier foundations in this cycle of foundations, it’s almost like the early challengers of Freud. They all started with Freud, with understanding Freud deeply. When you talk about Cummings, Wexner, Bronfman, they all started with federations. They had all been federation leaders. Most of them had been federation presidents. They intimately knew federations, and while they might challenge the federations on occasion, they knew the strengths and vulnerabilities and cared deeply about the success of the federation.

Sadly, many of the foundations that are of more recent vintage have leadership that don’t come out of that mind, that struggle. Therefore they see the federations as irrelevant to them and see themselves as irrelevant to the federations. That’s in many ways a tragedy.

Rubinton: Let me ask you about something else that has changed in the last two years and that is UJC, the umbrella group of the federations. It became JFNA, rebranded and with new leadership. What do you see as the potential of JFNA as a force for innovation?

Solomon: It is a place for innovation. We’ve been in discussions with both JFNA and the Jewish Funders Network. Given the long-term impact of this economic turnaround, are there back-office opportunities that could bridge federations and their agencies and foundations and their grantees? JFNA has been a full, welcoming partner. It may lead to naught. We’re in the very early stages of seeing whether there’s something there. But it’s an example of the openness of JFNA to say let’s take a look at it.

Ruskay: We are meeting soon after we saw JFNA provide real leadership for both the federation movement and the North American Jewish community in a complicated engagement with Israeli leadership about the conversion matter. That’s enhanced their standing and raised increased possibilities, and I credit Jerry Silverman [JFNA’s CEO] and the entire leadership.

I actually believe JFNA has more opportunities for creative innovations than it does in sustaining federations. It could challenge federations to do new approaches, whether it be adult Jewish education, campership, Israel education, whatever. It could stimulate more in that way, because providing support for more than 150 federations is a bottomless pit. That doesn’t mean they can’t do some great stuff, like continue to improve the General Assembly. They can do good work on executive recruitment. But innovation allows more focused passing lanes for JFNA to challenge, stimulate, and encourage communities, federations, and others to do experimentation.

Rubinton: Federations and foundations share a great reliance on the generosity of a small number of people. There’s a lot of worry that a generation of giants is leaving. What can be done?

Ruskay: I share the view of Natan Sharansky that the strengthening of Jewish identity is now the driver of everything we care about in Jewish life. We live in a relatively early chapter of the open society where you can walk out of the community. So the key factor is our people. Not only positively identified, but is their Jewishness a central part of who they are and what they want to be about. And then do they want to shape it? Without that I don’t care how much wealth they have.

We have these constant laments: Why do we have so many large Jewish donors giving to universities, museums, other cultural institutions – and not to Jewish life? The lament is ill placed. The issue is entirely about Jewish identity. Do we seize the opportunities to strengthen the Jewish community and Jewish identity? If we do, assuming some of the people will have money, hopefully some will say, “I want to have an impact here.”

Solomon: Among the things that concern me is the first part of your question, which is, as federations become more and more reliant on large donors, are they losing a very special place they had in the community? And as I see the system having gone from a million donors in 1972 to less than half of that, that loss reflects the openness of society but also a series of critical strategic decisions that had to be made to sustain the organizations.

One of the things that I would love to see emerge in a partnership between the foundations and the federations locally and/or nationally is work on how do we rebuild the base. How do we mobilize the base? My fear is as we lose donors, and the next generation never are donors, the role of the federation in the community is going to change in a deeper way.

At one time it was said that even if you give a small gift it is important because Congress sees that as a critical connection to Israel. This is the plebiscite of the Jewish people. Give 18 bucks. How do we restore the plebiscite?

Rubinton: In the foundation world, what is the hedge against the flow of money drying up?

Solomon: The hedge is the creation of wealth in this society and the natural desire of generation after generation to want to use that wealth for good. Look at what Bill Gates is doing right now in asking all billionaires to pledge to give away half of their wealth.

Rubinton: But does it connect up with what John was talking about in terms of Jewish identity, or are we going to see Jewish billionaires who are giving all their money somewhere else?

Solomon: What we see now is Jewish billionaires giving 94% of their money elsewhere. If John is successful and we are successful in inculcating greater identity, there is going to be a rapid change in that. That is what is the hope of whether it’s Birthright, whether it’s the renaissance of Jewish camping, or adult education. The hope of all of these identity-building measures is that you may have multiple identities, but your first instinct – when you decide what the charter of your foundation will be, where should you make this $100 million gift – will be to think Jewishly. That’s what we’ve lost a lot of, and that’s where this investment is going to make a difference.

Ruskay: Let me just add, and it will be slightly heretical for a journal like this, that the prime issue for me is not the loss of donors to federations. While I regret that, most of that certainly in New York is because of a conscious decision to invest less in direct mail and telegiving, clearly noneffective modes of engagement, and instead experiment with a range of web-based approaches that hold the promise of more sustained and content-based engagement. But the most urgent issue is not the loss of donors. The challenge for all of us – federations, foundations, and all who care about the Jewish future – is to strengthen positive Jewish identity and maximize engagement in Jewish life.

Solomon: John raises something else that is worth at least commenting on, which is the question of consolidation versus a more decentralized approach. One of the questions that we have to come to grips with is if we are designing communities, do we say instead of consolidating as much as we have in the past, it is time for us to decentralize so people can go after their passion and have the core principles of the federation be in five organizations, not one organization?

Ruskay: There were some places where I was wrong, and one of them was supporting decentralization in the New York public schools back in the late ‘60s. Because I learned later: Decentralization, community control sounded right, but the most powerful entities could then roll over them.

If we actually have less centralization than we have now, institutions that are in the most affluent parts of the community, they’re going to do fine. Those in front of you are going to do fine. But what’s going to happen to those efforts that serve the weaker, less affluent, more distant? I argue they will be challenged. That’s a challenge for us to think about. What does it mean to be responsible for the whole Jewish community and the whole Jewish people?

Rubinton: I want to end by going back to innovation. I’d like to hear both of you cite one innovation you think would be extraordinarily important for the Jewish world.

Ruskay: Establishing a new communal paradigm for Israel education that affirms encouraging young and old to develop their own perspectives and visions of what Israel can and should be. This would represent a massive communal shift. We would need to acknowledge that there are complex historical and contemporary issues to be studied for the purpose of developing personalized views and conflicting views, about both the narrative and the future.

Such an educational process would lead to deeper engagement and connection. I believe this about the study of Jewish theology, Torah, and halakhah. This is also required now for Israel. Reversing the attenuation of connection with Israel would reconnect and reinfuse and potentially reinspire people to think about how they can make a contribution to Israel in different ways.

Solomon: I would say creating and broadening a culture that will only support excellence within the Jewish community. If we got rid of the mediocrity of the Jewish community, there would be enough resources to do everything we want to do. If we got rid of the inefficiency, we would get rid of lots of things that have to do with our past and not our future. So we would be able to create a culture that said this is about excellence, this is about supporting excellence, and here are the ways we measure. Then the likelihood of having the resources to achieve the innovations that John just talked about would be greater.

Rubinton: Thank you both.

Noel Rubinton is Director of Editorial Content at UJA-Federation of New York.

This article appears in The Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Vol. 86, No.1/2, A Tradition of Innovation. Reprinted with permission. To receive the complete issue, you can subscribe here.