Flying into the 21st Century

By Eric M. Robbins

In a recent article, Talk is Cheap, several challenges facing Federations today are brought to the forefront. These include operating inefficiencies, partisanship, shifting giving trends and affiliation rates – just to name a few. The author correctly identified all of these challenges, and further pointed out that they have been building up over years, but he makes one critical omission: Federations across North America are changing to meet these challenges and they are finding unique ways to support the communities they serve. Just look at Atlanta. We have spent the last year in Atlanta rallying the community to tackle these exact issues.

In February we shared a bit about the process in the article Atlanta: A Community Moving Together into the 21st Century, and in May we provided an update in A Landing Strip for New Ideas: Atlanta Pilots Prototype Boot Camp. But we did not stop at a landing strip; we are actively moving forward.

Greenwald’s premise that “talk is cheap” inherently makes the assumption that we can skip building community as part of embracing change. He suggests that leaders are “concerned more about participation than results.” We believe leaders can’t ever achieve results if they don’t garner participation. So let us propose a modification: Talk is priceless; talk without action is cheap.

It is suggested that Federations need to focus on their primary role as a fundraising organization; and yet we are expected to lead change. We view ourselves first and foremost as the philanthropic champions of Atlanta, and we earn the right to raise money as we lead change. In order to drive the community forward with collective giving, we cannot be just fundraisers, while that remains a critical role and something we wholeheartedly embrace. We have to be an incubator, functioning as a lab to nourish new initiatives that help our community until they are ready to go out on their own or live within existing organizations. We have to be an amplifier, promoting and magnifying our partner’s work, and asking the hard questions to hold the community accountable to the collective vision that has been created. We have to be a wayfinder, linking people to services, resources and events, helping people navigate our community through personal warmth as well as technology. And we have to serve as the source of community intelligence, supporting our community with “big data” so we can serve our ecosystem today and actively plan for the future.

One could argue that identifying these roles is just talk. We most certainly need to deliver on them. Greenwald proposes that a first step is to consolidate community organizations, especially Federation, the JCC and JF&CS. This is not a new vision. Today, at least one-third of all Federations are “integrated,” reflecting a merged structure between the Federation and a formerly separate organization. It’s a model that has worked in some places, but it is not realistic for Atlanta. Yes, change is needed. And Atlanta’s Federation is poised to lead a collaboration of that change within the benefit of a common community agenda – one that could never have been reached without talking to hundreds in the community and ensuring that they are ready and aligned to come along.

Over the last several months we have envisioned a future for a thriving and connected 21st century Jewish Atlanta where every Jew and their loved ones can access warm Jewish community, timeless Jewish wisdom, global Jewish peoplehood and Jewish ways to do good in the world. And we are well on our way to getting there.

Our social service agencies have come together to launch AgeWell Atlanta as a centralized resource to address the needs of our aging population and their caregivers. Our first-ever VP of Innovation has opened new co-working spaces and is actively mentoring over twenty community prototypes. In line with Greenwald’s emphasis on the need to embrace social justice as a core value, we secured the funding to bring Repair the World to Atlanta so that we have the infrastructure to enable our NexGen Jews to really engage in this space. We have secured multi-year funding to enable a million dollar investment into reaching communities around our growing city that have not traditionally been rich in Jewish resources. We piloted a program to bring shinshinim (Israeli teenage emissaries) to Atlanta and it was so successful that we immediately scaled it up from two to eight teenagers. And our organization is realigning to ensure that we are poised to continue to build on the successes of our starting points – with new approaches to fundraising (including securing national funding to enabled revamped emphasis on legacy giving and Atlanta Jewish Foundation), ongoing community collaborations, governance, leadership development and even our staff structure.

Talk is not cheap; it is priceless. It has gotten us to this point where we are acting rapidly. We will continue a deep commitment to conversation along the way so that our community can embrace and enable our change. And we invite everyone along for the ride.

Eric M. Robbins is CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.