Federations and the Jewish Marketplace of the 21st Century

What We Can Learn from this Unique Communal Model and What this Enterprise Will Require for the Future

Screen capture JFNA

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

This coming week, as federation leaders gather in LA from across North America for the 86th GA (General Assembly), it represents another opportunity to revisit the case for federations. Beyond such stories as the one that appeared on these pages some days ago, it is essential to take a deeper look at the evolution and impact of the 148 federations on Jewish life.

We are reminded that the origins of the “federated” model date back to the late 19th century where the ideas of progressivism promoted a growing alliance of business interests with philanthropic endeavors. The idea of “collective associations” would represent a prominent theme of that era, as institutions with shared interests formed working alliances to achieve common outcomes.

Current Reflections:

As we think about the evolution and growth of the federation model, this system has left a profound mark on 20th century history of American Jewry. In more recent times, this North American institution has faced an array of new challenges and critics. Among others, I have been critical on occasion with reference to certain federation policies and directions. More specifically, I along with some voices worry about the privatization of federations. Others however have suggested that we sunset this enterprise, citing its failures and dysfunctionality.

To the contrary, I am arguing here that the North American federation system needs to be sustained, as elements of its mandate remain essential. I hold to the distinctive value and essential character of this unique type of communal structure. Elsewhere, I have written about the elements that today are challenging the federation network.

Complicating the federations’ ability to serve our communities is the character and content of the changes under way within the Jewish world. I believe that one only needs to examine the most recent crisis situations involving Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the Northern California fires or to recall the countless events where Jewish communities at home and abroad were dependent on both the financial and structural assistance of our federations in being early responders to such disasters. No other agency within our communal system has the experience or capacity to manage such crisis-intervention efforts. The ability to mobilize, to lead, and to plan represents the historic trademark of this system.

Crisis-based management has defined federations and their work throughout the 20th century; their history has been directly tied to this core function in connection with Israel’s epic history, the flight to freedom of Jews across the globe, and the legacy of infrastructural assistance and program services to our most vulnerable. No one ought to minimize this capacity to mobilize communal resources. To discard or minimize these tasks would be problematic to the long-term interests of the Jewish people.

Secondly, it is important to note that federations have played a central role as a convening body, helping institutions determine how best to collaborate, bringing desperate voices together in order to find common ground, and bridging links between legacy institutions and the boutique or start-up organizations that today dot the communal landscape. Noting the changing composition of the communal order, one will need to take into account the particular importance of this convening function.

At a time of deep social and political divisions, our federations ought to be seen as safe space for candid discussions on the “state” of Jewish concerns. Where some of us might well prefer federations to be more pro active on the public stage in this environment, the institutional political complexities seemingly prevents such activism. Nonetheless, no other address within our community can better serve as the center point for such policy discussions. The neutral ground that federations’ aspire to affirm should allow for an honest and essential dialogue and debate on the many issues that today divide and distance our community participants.

At a time when our communal system requires a careful mapping of the changing nature of Jewish life, the traditional planning function unique to the federation world will be an essential piece for the 21st century. The R&D portfolio will be a necessary ingredient for 21st century federations and our transformative Jewish condition. Even if federations in this instance are only partners with others in monitoring and mapping these profound changes, they will have an essential role to play.

One of the central features of our community federations has been its Israel and global Jewish credentials. Its historical partnerships with the Jewish Agency and the JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Center) set the framework for constructing Diaspora-Homeland philanthropy and policy. While many of these traditional connections are changing, new opportunities abound in terms of bridge building and educational initiatives between Israel and North American Jewish audiences. As some Jews, especially younger participants, hold a more distant and at times more uncertain relationship with Israel, this frame of activity can be profoundly important to Jewish political, religious and social concerns.

In partnership with others including our community foundations, family funders and individual donors, federations have the opportunity for seeding and supporting new and essential programs that will be critical to millennials and to Generation Z in strengthening Jewish learning, promoting engagement and advancing social activism.

In summary, I see these six distinctive historical features as validating the federation model:

  • Crisis-Manager
  • Communal Convener
  • Policy Center
  • Global Jewish Connector
  • Research and Development: Identifying Trends/Introducing Responses
  • Jewish Future: Imagining and Seeding New Initiatives

Moving Forward:

The challenges facing the communal world are uneven, as different communities are confronting a mix of issues. Indeed, certain larger Jewish communities are possibly more successful in withstanding various demographic and structural threats than smaller to mid-size federations. Boutique models of community organizing tend to be more evident within these larger federated markets, creating opportunities for synergy but also for institutional conflict.

In an age of individualized expression and personal choice, how will the federated system appeal to the next generation of potential donors, while retaining their core supporters? At a moment in time where foundations and individual funders are often operating outside of federations or in competition with the existing communal order, what roles ought these central bodies to play? In an age where institutions and leaders are experiencing a loss of trust, how do we insure access, transparency, and accountability in connection with our umbrella organizations? In an age when umbrella systems are being challenged and critiqued, we are likely to see the most dramatic changes occurring “from the bottom up” as individual federations test different models of practice and select alternative ways to define mission.

The federations of the future will clearly face different operational challenges than their counter parts of the past. In planning for the future of our communities, these elements would appear to be importance:

  • Helping to redefine the nature and definition of “community” in a world of spiraling new expressions of what it may mean to “be Jewish,” many of which pushing back against the idea of community.
  • Assisting synagogues, agencies and community organizations in mapping their future; in some cases this may well involve the closure or merger of institutions, while in other settings this may require federations to help seed new expressions or boutique models of Jewish engagement.
  • Working to construct some semblance of communal expression or consensus in an age that is not comfortable with shared agreements and common action.
  • Pushing back against threats to the Jewish community and to the larger civic order, where racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Israelism and other forms of hate must be countered, while promoting models of coalition building and advancing social justice causes, i.e. the LA Federation’s “Change Maker Initiative.”
  • Marshaling resources to meet the needs of our vulnerable populations and an increasingly older Jewish community.
  • Advancing, along with others including individual foundations and funders, new points of access and engagement for Jewish seekers, while also supporting on-going creative Jewish learning opportunities both on the formal and informal level, as the costs associated with Jewish living accelerate.
  • Reinventing new frameworks for Diaspora-Israel engagement and promoting creative and virtual connections with global Jewry.
  • Drawing on social media to construct system-wide organizing, information services and education programs, Federations could be the primary beneficiaries of the new technologies in modeling creative ways to employ these communications tools.
  • Growing federation endowment funds as a way to sustain existing services and core programs, while at the same time underwriting new initiatives, and
  • Studying the demographic, social, and religious trends of American Jewry. Who else is equipped to marshal the resources to examine the changing patterns of affiliation, giving, and engagement? Data essential to future planning and organizing.

Just as the Los Angeles Federation has recently announced (The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Federation 20/20), federations will need to consider the many challenges facing the communal order as they plan for the future. Indeed, a number of communities are addressing the challenges, and opportunities, before them (i.e.  ejewishphilanthropy.com/weaving-community-one-perspective-on-federation-work/).

There is a growing body of research that today addresses the task of reinventing nonprofit structures rather than scraping such enterprises. Most thoughtful writers on social change note the importance of experimenting with new program models, rebranding initiatives, and reconstructing governance systems in order to create a heightened level of excitement and connection for new consumers and potential donors.

Umbrella institutions around the country, including United Way, are exploring alternative means of doing business. One such initiative is “collective impact” where “bold goals” with target dates are selected and many agencies and organizations are invited to be a part of the problem solving process.

Nonprofit consultant, Bill Ryan, writing about the changing roles of nonprofits, offers these thoughts:

Growing numbers of nonprofits, borrowing from the playbook of the business world, pursue strategies that include mergers, acquisitions, for-profit subsidiaries, and joint ventures. Nonprofit organizations more aggressively market their products and services and engage in benchmarking and branding.

Many of the changes that are occurring in the nonprofit sector are being driven by the current political realities, where new tax policies, federal budgetary downsizing, and a shift in government priorities will alter the social service environment.

End Notes:

Some will critique this article for not declaring federations dead on arrival as a communal instrument constructed for a different time and operating today with a very different constituency. I maintain that aligning those core functions that remain essential to its mission, along with a conscious effort to redesign its message and reimagine elements of its agenda, will allow federations to contend in this changing environment. In dissembling parts of the old communal model and reframing its mission to meet the passions and priorities for 21st Century constituencies, it will be essential in the process not to jettison those operational resources that are likely to remain important and that have been historic markers of federation’s imprint on Jewish life.

In many ways the federation story is my personal tale. Coming from a family active in the communal enterprise (Richmond), I would be the beneficiary of federation support as an agency executive (New York), enjoy a twelve-year tenure as a federation executive (Albany, Northeastern New York), and serve as a member of the leadership team of a major federation (Los Angeles) for ten years.

In moving federations forward, some of us have suggested that veteran communal leaders will need to recalibrate their thinking: “ ‘Can we let go of some of the past to make room for divergent views?‘ Just as the community’s younger leaders will be challenged to consider the following: ‘Can you open yourselves more to listening (not being lectured to, but listening) to opinions that unsettle you?’ In that space of shared listening and mutual learning, we have the potential to open even more inventive pathways to a thriving Jewish community in the years ahead.”

Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.