Four Questions for After the Seder

By Rabbi Seth (Shaul) Farber Ph.D.

The Passover seder has two sets of four questions: The first (generally called the Mah Nistana) are questions of best practices, and are answered by the singular narrative “avadim Hayinu,” or “Once we were slaves.” The second, generally known as “the four sons” ( or children), are more philosophical in orientation asking questions of values, and each one is answered differently.

In this time of crisis, founders and directors of NGOs are struggling with a myriad of issues that we haven’t been trained to answer. These times are unprecedented, and frankly, there is no clear roadmap for nonprofits to traverse these moments.  The following are four questions that I’ve been struggling with over the last two weeks, and I share them with the eJewish Philanthropy community to generate a discussion about the practical dimensions of the present crisis. 

  1. People vs. Programs: To cut or not to cut?

There is little question that budgets need to be trimmed in light of the present crisis. Even if organizations presently have enough cash flow to proceed, the unknowns of the coming months require a tightening of the belt. But where to cut back? Should the highest priority be maintaining our staff (even if they can’t do their jobs fully) while cutting programs, or is it better to lay off staff at present (even temporarily) so that the services we provide will continue to be provided fully (even if they can’t be provided to the extent that we provided them before.

Frankly speaking, while I understand the need to “keep staff on,” I also wonder about the ethics of keeping staff on when our donors (and their companies) are laying people off. Moreover, our donors didn’t spend their philanthropic dollars on giving people jobs: they wanted change in the community.

  1. Emergency Funds: To Apply or not to Apply

There has been an incredible outpouring of understanding from the philanthropic community creating emergency funds to help organizations get through these hard times. Many emergency funds have been created that enable organizations cutting programs or staff to receive grants or interest free loans. But these applications – unintentionally – put NGOs that have reserves in a moral bind. Say for example, an NGO has six months of payroll put away for just this kind of emergency. Should they apply for an emergency grant (thus competing with a colleague who can’t make payroll this month?) On one hand, their fiscal responsibility is a demonstration that they run a more responsible organization – worthy of supporting. On the other, applying (and receiving) a grant means that another organization might go out of business.

  1. Short vs. Long Term: Where Should the Focus Be?

A lot of concern regarding cutting programs in the face of the human and economic crisis relates to strategy for the short term. But many NGOs are struggling not only with the coming year but the coming years. Philanthropic foundations have made commitments for this year and NGOs are hopeful that the foundations will meet their commitments. At the beginning of the crisis, eleven foundations signed a commitment letter for this year which I found reassuring in these difficult times.

But what of the coming years? NGOs need to start thinking not only of how they will meet their budgets for 2020, but who will be in a position to help them in 2021 or 2022. Even if an NGO has built a war chest, given the current crisis, it might be prudent not to dig into it, because this year might be much easier to traverse than next year. But one of the biggest questions NGOs are asking is an existential one: Is our existence justified if we are only able to operate at 30 or 40% for the coming years.

  1. Salaries of NGOs: from the top or the bottom (or both)?

For many NGOs, salary and benefits are an overwhelmingly high line item on the budget – despite the fact that many employees are grossly underpaid given what they could make in the private sector. I have spent a disproportionate amount of time considering whether management should cut their own salaries or the salaries of their employees. Should cuts be across the board. These decisions raise the question about the core of an organization and its value, its values and its essence.

Of course, each of these questions are constantly being addressed – even in times of no crisis – by the leadership and governance of NGOs. What makes this moment unique is that all these questions need answers quickly, and frankly, there aren’t that many people who can answer them.

Now that seder(s) have concluded, remember there are more questions that as of now, remain unanswered.

Rabbi Seth (Shaul) Farber Ph.D. is the founder of ITIM: The Jewish Advocacy Center in Israel and the founding rabbi of Kehilat Netivot in Raanana, Israel.