“I think we’ve reached a point where there is an opportunity for me and an opportunity for the community to have a fresh look,” Fishel said. “I’d like to believe that during my tenure we accomplished a lot, and I know there are many things that are unfinished. That is the nature of community work, especially in a dynamic community like this one.
I came to a place which was in disarray, with tremendous financial problems, enormous turmoil within the staff, and a lot of turmoil in the lay leadership,” Fishel said. “There was a lack of clarity in terms of priorities. It was a place that clearly needed some strong professional guidance.”
Consensus is that Federation is in better shape today, and Fishel has worked to clarify priorities and improve operations at the $50 million institution, which employs about 150 people directly and provides funds to 114 social service, educational and cultural programs.
… But while emergency campaigns often did better than expected – around $20 million in 2000 and again in 2002, in response to Israeli and Argentine crises – the annual campaign has remained relatively flat: Federation took in $42.4 million in 1992 and $49 million in 2009. In between it went as low as $37.4 million and as high as $51 million. An estimated 18,000 Jewish households, out of Los Angeles’ 200,000, give to Federation.
Some blame the national philanthropic shift toward donor investment in direct causes rather than obligatory, unrestricted contributions to umbrella organizations. But Federation is also paying the price of a policy over the last several years to focus its attention on the largest donors, leaving itself, in the end, with an aging and shrinking donor base and a disaffiliated community.
Long aware of these challenges, Fishel has tweaked giving policies and in the last two years worked with Chairman Stanley Gold to revamp how Federation allocates funds. He also worked with lay leaders to set up the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, which enables donors to be active players in where the money goes. He replaced outdated leadership development programs to attract more young people, and in recent months he oversaw the initiation of Give Life Meaning, a new marketing campaign targeted at broadening Federation affiliation.
While the board now has significant representation from young people, Fishel acknowledges there is a long way to go in making Federation appealing to a younger generation.
“One of the challenges for the future is how do you assure that those people who are your best supporters continue to feel passionate, how do you engage their children and grandchildren, and at the same time recognize that you need to broaden the numbers of donors and community members?”