Good Decisions in Bad Times: In Praise of Federation Community Allocations

In the words of Thomas Paine (or depending on your musical taste, the Kingston Trio) – these are the days that try men’s souls. With the economy in tatters, jobless numbers swelling, and pocketbooks suffering, charities all over the country are facing decreased campaigns and increased needs. And of course in the Jewish community, the campaigns of federations have not been immune to this swift and painful downturn. Even those campaigns got an early start before the full onslaught of the economic retreat was felt have suffered substantial drop-off in contributions. In addition, there is the broad impact of Madoff, shrinking endowments and reduced government grants. Yes, these are trying times that can freeze us in the face of the challenges presented. But they are also times where we must nevertheless make decisions on how to confront those challenges. In the federation world, those decisions are often made by community allocations committees.

The good news? Even in bad times, these committees are making good decisions.

Taking my own community as an example, this week the Jewish Federation of Atlanta concluded its allocations process by accepting and approving the thoughtful and balanced recommendation of the local allocations committee. Paradoxically, even in these troubling times, the allocations decisions gave us all something to feel good about. Now make no mistake, nobody felt good about the decreased resources – notwithstanding the heroic efforts of the campaign team it is natural for everyone to wish there was more money to allocate to worthy affiliates and grantees. But what felt good was our collective understanding and appreciation of the way the allocations committee deliberated and decided how community resources should be allocated to meet community needs. The process was thoughtful, inclusive and exhaustive – and even though it resulted in reduced allocations for all, it balanced those reductions with targeted allocations to areas in which need is greatest. Painful decisions perhaps, but smart decisions nevertheless. And the best part? The tough decisions were made not by professionals or hired consultants, but the very members of the community that will be impacted by those decisions.

Now it is popular these days to bemoan how Jewish philanthropy is changing, that the sovereign donor is making more of his/her own choices independent of communal campaigns. In addition, the generosity of individual philanthropists lulls us into a false sense of security that foundations will always meet the targeted needs of the community. But there is an undeniable fact that a community allocations process, run effectively and inclusively like the one in Atlanta, results in broader, more sensitive and more balanced impact than independent decisions by individual donors and foundations. While foundations can be myopic in their focus, federation community allocations decisions must be based on a wide view of community need and consensus.

There is a reason why allocations committees have endured in our communities for so long – because they work.

So now, whereas for many years we have praised foundations at the expense of federations, in these trying times we should be thankful that we have our fellow community members making community decisions. Indeed, in many cases like today in Atlanta, these decisions seem imbued with the wisdom of King Solomon. Balancing local needs with out commitment to Jews overseas, weighing core human services needs with the need to provide education scholarships, maintaining infrastructure while also supporting outcome-focused initiatives – all of these balancing acts can only be genuinely conceived and decided by people who genuinely feel a part of the community they are serving.

Our challenges in these difficult days are great, but not unprecedented. We are reminded that, like now, there once was a time recorded in the Book of Judges (Nevi’im) that there was no king in Israel and everyone did as they pleased. These days we too have no king, and many times it seems like everyone is doing what pleases him or her. Nevertheless, we should not lose sight that in each of our towns and cities we have a kinship of community that demonstrates the wisdom of kings; wisdom expressed by making community allocations decisions that give us all a reason to be proud – even in times that try our souls.

Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an  Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is an occasional contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] agg.com.