It is Vital that We Protect our Charity Ecosystem

Screen capture: WABI.tv

The idea that staff should be laid off must be removed from the agenda.

By Michael Wegier

“In every generation they rise up to destroy us.” This Pesach, it is pretty clear that in addition to discussing Egyptian slavery and latter-day antisemites, we will also be discussing the devastating impact of Covid-19.

Along with all other sectors of society, the virus has thrown the charity sector into crisis management mode. This begs the question, how should the Jewish community respond with reference to our communal charities, foundations and donors?

In the immediate future, our first priority must be to support, financially and otherwise, sufferers from the virus and their families, which will include members of our community. We have already seen that the percentage of Jewish victims in the UK is disproportionately high.

Beyond this, we must also consider that our community charities’ beneficiaries and employees are inevitably a second wave of victims as funding sources dry up. This will have deep implications for the coming months and long into the future. I would like to explore what else we should be doing to both get through the next months and prepare for “the day after.”

In regular times, senior management teams and trustees alike are mindful that while we must care for and develop our professionals, we exist to support our beneficiaries and not our employees.

Many charities go through periods of increasing their staff count and then, as costs mount, implementing a wave of redundancies to reduce levels to a financially feasible number. CEOs hate making people redundant, but this sometimes must be done if we remain committed to the goal of putting our beneficiaries first.

But not this time: Jewish communal professionals are the lifeblood of our community’s eco-system. Our schools and shuls, as well as charities, are essential for our own communal viability as well as that of beneficiaries in Israel and around the world.

The idea that staff should be laid off should, wherever possible, be removed from the agenda for the next six months. There are moral, religious and strategic reasons to support our communal charities at this time to ensure that employee numbers are maintained.

The Jewish community is a significant employer of both Jews and non-Jews. Educators, project managers, fundraisers, carers, caretakers, administrators and many other types of professionals enable our institutions to function and in doing so, they provide employment for thousands of people. We have a major responsibility to our professionals and their families at this critical time.

Trustees and senior management teams should communicate quickly to their teams that everything that can be done will be done for their jobs to remain secure throughout the crisis, whether that is from their own resources or government support.

I am aware that there is some waste and duplication in our community eco-systems and this crisis will force us to enter long needed conversations about cost-cutting and mergers. But at this time of global crisis, our own employees must be as much in our minds as our beneficiaries.

The laying off, of hundreds if not thousands of people from the community network of professionals, will have drastic implications, not just for their families, but also for the long-term flourishing of the beneficiaries they serve.

We risk losing the skills and experience of people who have dedicated careers to serving the community here in Britain, in Israel and around the world. Furthermore, when the crisis is over, we will depend on their expertise to get the community’s activities going again as quickly and expertly as possible.

Who should pay to keep the financial motor running if, as is usually the case, charities do not have large unrestricted reserves?

The government seems to be stepping in with the furlough scheme, but this will be paying people to stay at home and not work. Many of our charities provide services that are desperately needed now, so this will be a lifeline for some, but not for many people who need the labour of our community professionals to help them in a wide variety of ways.

Some charities do have very large reserves, and they might consider what would be the best use of a portion of those funds in this critical period.

Significantly, our community is fortunate to benefit from several foundations which do extraordinary work in the UK and beyond in both the Jewish and general sectors. They often have large amounts of assets that can be turned into cash relatively quickly. Some are already meeting the challenge, which is excellent.

It would be great if others stepped up as well. Even a 5 per cent allocation of their reserves would make a huge impact on our community’s employees and their beneficiaries to help whether the storm.

Now is the time for foundations with capacity to work together with communal charities to ensure that we simultaneously support the most vulnerable and also ensure the survival of our charity system.

Many charities and foundations favour ‘capital campaigns’ that build essential schools, shuls, colleges and other buildings, mostly in the UK and Israel. What we need now is to see the maintenance of our community infrastructure as the ‘capital campaign’ for 2020 which will serve as the building block for the post Covid-19 era.

Additionally, major donors and foundations alike should communicate clearly with their charities that restricted/ringfenced donations can (with agreement) become “unrestricted” and gifts that were due to be given later in the year will be given now.

Responsibility does not only lie with the major donors and foundations. Each of us who is able should make our gift to favoured charities now and not wait until later in the year. If you cannot give as much as you gave last year, give less.

Our charities have a major responsibility. They must use this time wisely as it cannot be business as usual. As they take care of their beneficiaries and their employees, they must ask themselves tough strategic questions about why they exist, and what they can do to be relevant, impactful and efficient for the day after. Regrettably, these measures will not secure the future of all community charities, but it can make a huge difference to the sector as a whole.

The world is changing and charities will adapt or perish. But in the process of making that happen, let us not leave Jewish communal employees to be additional victims. The Talmud teaches “Kol Yisral Arevim Ze B’ze” – All Israel are responsible for one another. Let us see that happen here and now.

Michael Wegier is a former chief executive of UJIA.

First published in The Jewish Chronicle (U.K.); reprinted with permission.