Federation and Its Future: Floundering or Flourishing?

Screenshot JFNA website

By Maayan Hoffman

On Sunday, 3,000 Jews will converge on Los Angeles for the 2017 Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (GA). Volunteers, philanthropists, and Jewish communal and business professionals from across the globe will come together to discuss Jewish education, engagement and fundraising.

The itinerary includes talks by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and a video address by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who will not attend. Top Hollywood names, like Alison Lebovitz, host of PBS’ “The A List with Alison Lebovitz,” will also address the audience.

But for Jewish analysts who have been following the Federation movement over the last decade, the 2017 GA is at best bittersweet.

In 2010, one year after JFNA named Jerry Silverman as its new leader and the Federation unveiled five new priority areas with unbridled optimism, JTA reported the participation of 6,000 Jewish leaders at its annual GA in New Orleans – double the number attending this year. Moreover, the LA Jewish Journal reported that only 250 Jewish leaders are registered from the city.

Then there were 157 Jewish Federations. Today, there are 148 Jewish Federations (10 in Canada and 138 in the US), plus about 300 network communities, as federations have consolidated, merged or shut down.

Richard Wexler, one of the architects of the national organization of Jewish federations, singled out The Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, which he said, “committed organizational suicide.”

In 2013, after 67 years, the “Allied” and the “Federation” brands in Colorado retired and merged with the Jewish Community Foundation into JEWISHColorado. Though JEWISHColorado retained its affiliation with JFNA, the organization shifted its focus on the annual campaign total as the measure of growth or decline to a focus on total financial resource development. It simultaneously eliminated its allocation system and replaced it with a grantmaking system.

“The Federations are failing,” Wexler told eJewish Philanthropy.

Wexler said the 1999 merger of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), the Council of Jewish Federations, and the United Israel Appeal – renamed JFNA in 2009 – was meant to advance the system’s commitment to Jewish peoplehood, create a vehicle for more effective fundraising campaigns, and ensure the North American Jewish community’s commitment to its overseas partners.

In contrast, annual allocations to Israel and overseas hover around 10 percent – a historic low. In recent years, federations have increasingly been opting out of the historic overseas funding agreement, either cutting dollars, or using those funds to directly support causes in Israel or support local programs that connect their communities to Israel.

Wexler described a federation system that in his opinion is lacking in leadership, follow through and communication.

“There is a lot of concern about the health of Federation and the real and potential impact of federations,” said David Edell, president of the Development Resource Group (DRG), which focuses on conducting executive searches for professionals throughout the Jewish community. Edell held several senior executive positions at UJA-Federation of New York.

When one looks solely at the success of the annual campaign, the Federation’s challenges are easily identified. The annual campaign total is up, but it has not kept pace with inflation, explained Dr. Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, who has a long history inside and outside the Federation world.

“The annual campaigns are not raising what they once raised,” said Solomon.

But JFNA Executive Vice President Mark Gurvis insisted JFNA can no longer be judged solely on its annual campaign totals.

“If you look only at the annual campaign, you are missing a huge part of the story,” Gurvis told eJP. But he admitted that JFNA “does not necessarily have robust data on all funds being collected in other ways.”

A recent report by Haaretz found that collectively the Jewish Federations turn over billions of dollars a year, raise a combined approximately $900 million a year, and their combined assets are worth $16 billion. Between 2012-2015, 138 federations raised more than $5.7 billion and distributed more than $3.6 billion in the US and Israel.

Gurvis said the raw number of gifts to the annual campaign has gone down while overall fundraising output has either been stable or slightly increased. The more significant change comes in the way people are giving to and through federations, shifting from unrestricted to more targeted or donor-restricted gifts.

“Our system has been shifting over time and I would say these shifts have accelerated in the last 10 to 15 years, where we have moved from the annual campaign as the primary vehicle through which Federation raised money to a more varied set of revenue streams, including planned giving, special project, and in some cases, capital fundraising.” said Gurvis. “We are in the middle of these changes and I would not begin to say I know where this is going to end up.”


The “changes” to which Gurvis is referring are not specific to Federation, but worldwide shifts in giving patterns, affiliation and worldview, according to Edell.

“We live in a complicated and changing world,” said Edell.

According to Robert Evans, president of Evans Consulting Group, which has consulted with nonprofits across the U.S. for more than 20 years, he has been seeing significant changes in attitudes and behaviors by donors for the last 25 to 30 years. The most significant change comes in the “Public Society Benefit” category.

“This category includes all ‘traditional umbrella campaigns,’ and reflects how today’s donors wish to ‘touch’ the agencies and programs they hold as priorities,” said Evans. “This has caused a very significant re-alignment of the types of popular nonprofits receiving major charitable commitments today as compared and contrasted to 25 to 30 years ago.”

Evans said not only the Federation, but also non-Jewish umbrella organizations, like United Way and Catholic Charities, are seeing an average of a 10 percent to 15 percent decline in annual donations.

In addition, while annual donations are up – according to a report by Giving USA Foundation, in 1990, Americans gave around $98 billion in charitable donations and in 2015 that number hit more than $370 billion – where those donations are going is very different. In both 1990 and 2015, the largest amount of charitable giving was targeted to “religion” organizations, the percentage of the total pie has dropped. If 25 years ago religion organizations got half of charitable dollars, today they get only one third.

Evans said contributions toward hospitals and other medical initiatives have also dropped, while the percentage of charitable dollars going toward education is on the rise.

“Donors are saying we want to support the organizations we want to support, rather than taking the umbrella approach,” said Evans.

This is especially true of Millennials, said Rabbi Mike Uram, author of “Next Generation Judaism: How College Students and Hillel Can Help Reinvent Jewish Organizations.” He told eJP that Millennials are “the most distrustful generation.” According to Uram, 19 percent of Millennials report that, generally speaking, people can be trusted. In contrast, 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of the Silent Generation and 40% of Boomers believed people could be trusted.

“The Federation operates on the notion that we are one Jewish community,” said Uram. “Jews today don’t feel part of one community.”

Solomon said he believes the internet age is the biggest catalyst for this change.

In 2017, “we skip the middle person,” said Solomon. “We go directly to the manufacturers, we use Uber. Instead of dealing with taxi companies, we just work directly with people who have cars and are willing to share them with us.”

But he said there are other “Jewish” factors involved, too, and the first is Israel.

In 1948, every Jew felt compelled to support the creation of the Jewish State. As the Holy Land took in poor immigrants from Europe, Russian and Ethiopia, Jews opened their hands and their hearts. Today, Israel is considered among the more divisive subjects for liberal American Jews. On college campuses it is often unpopular for young Jews to support Israel with white supremacy on the right and anti-Zionism on the left. The older Jewish generation is torn over issues of religion and state in Israel.

“Today Israel is an economic powerhouse,” said Solomon. “People don’t want to give to an umbrella organization that requires them to give to Israel when they feel like they would prefer to help needy in their own community.”

Further, said Solomon, in the years between the two World Wars when the first Jewish federations were founded, Jews were not welcome on the boards of museums, universities and hospitals. Today, Jews – and especially Jewish philanthropic money – is welcome. This is despite an April report by the Anti-Defamation League that there has been an 86 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the US so far in 2017 – after anti-Semitism surged last year.

According to a 2014 report by The Forward, the Jewish community’s federations, schools, health care and social service organizations, Israel aid groups, cultural and communal organizations, and advocacy groups report net assets of $26 billion. This does not include synagogues and other groups that avoid revealing their financial information by claiming a religious exemption.

Evans said he does not predict the demise of umbrella organizations like the Federation, but he does believe these organizations will need to operate differently, and perhaps move to a targeted giving model.

The question is, if donors are targeting their gifts, what would be the role of Federation?

“That is the big question,” said Evans. “Would federations move away from being a fundraiser to just a voice for the community? I don’t know. But I think a major change is coming.”


Uram believes this change needs to be in the way Jewish community organizations set goals for themselves and their constituents, and in how they interact with this new generation.

Uram recommends judging programmatic success based on four criteria: 1) increase in Jewish knowledge; 2) increase in Jewish self-confidence; 3) increase in one’s sense of connectedness to other Jews; 4) creation of a positive Jewish memory for individual participants.

“If Federation does a huge barbeque and 3,000 people show up, but everyone who shows up only hangs out with the friends they came with, if participants don’t like the food, there is no invitation to the next opportunity, and participants didn’t learn anything about Judaism, while the community organization might consider the event the biggest success ever because there were so many people, I’d say it’s a failure because the event reinforced all the negative stereotypes about the Jewish community,” said Uram. “Things that look like success to an institution might be a limited success or even failure in terms of their impact on individual Jews.”

Uram said, “The mission needs to be Jewish life and not just institutional health.”

Gurvis does not discount Uram’s notion that Jewish engagement might look different today than in the past, but he believes that some of it is just semantics – “At the end of the day, we are just talking about different strokes for different folks. Professional marketers would have said there is nothing really new here.”

He also said that “there is some mythology” that the Jewish community was one big, happy, cohesive place before 2017.

“Go back to letters to the editor, editorials or any of the Jewish newspapers from the past, and at various junctures there have been enormous divisions going back centuries if not millennium,” said Gurvis. “We are not cohesive now, and we were not then.”

Gurvis insisted that the Federation is getting more involved in community organizing and engagement, rather than just fundraising, though he said these efforts look different in different communities.

“As Jewish population and identity in North America has changed over the past few decades, so have the services provided by Federations,” JFNA said in a statement published by Haaretz. “In addition to grant making, nearly one-third of all Federations have become ‘integrated;’ taking on the direct responsibility for delivering programs and a myriad of community services functions which in the past might have been delivered by different agencies.”

Gurvis said JFNA leaders are conflicted about how to define Federation’s work today.

He said some Federation professionals look at engagement work in a more traditional way – that the ultimate goal of engagement efforts is to convert those they engage into donors. Others are looking at the goal of engagement as just that, engagement in Jewish life – and not about the Federation gift. And still others continue to grapple with whether the Federation can have its cake and eat it too: “The primary work could be engagement in Jewish life, but there could still be a traditional goal of philanthropy somehow,” said Gurvis.

“As we get deeper into this, we are going to have to decide what this work is and how we want to be involved in it,” he said.

Despite months of repeated requests by eJP through various methods for transparent financial reports and trends from JFNA, ultimately no numbers were turned over. In interviews with Federation insiders, it became clear this was not for lack of transparency, but because those numbers just don’t exist. While JFNA requests organizational strength be judged on more than annual campaigns, it does not have a handle on the total financial picture of its 148 Jewish Federations or even what key performance indicators – financial or otherwise – it could or should consistently track across the system.

Research by Haaretz into the Federation system found “a powerful but opaque machine that turns over billions but can be vague as to how the money is used.”

eJP came to a slightly different conclusion: Federation is an organization that is still essential for the Jewish community’s future, but has ever-waning financial and community-building power and is floundering to re-define itself in an increasingly crowded and complicated Jewish world.

“Federations have been conveners and will continue to be conveners,” said Solomon. “While giving to the Federation might not be as glamorous as giving to the local symphony or museum, if we want our children to have a meaningful Jewish education, if we want our grandchildren to go to Jewish preschool or to have a strong communal response to floods in Houston or Florida, then we will always need the Federation.”

Gurvis said the Federation is where the community turns in times of crisis and it is the organization expected to lead and coordinate the Jewish community’s response.

“We are going through times of tremendous and dislocating change,” said Gurvis. “And yet, I am openly optimistic.”