The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is coming up in just a few short days. We have had an opportunity to read a number of postings over the last several weeks about the challenges facing the federation system and JFNA (here). Other postings (here, here and here) questioning the viability, and challenges, of the federation system have appeared from time to time. Questions are still asked about whether the federation is an outdated institution that has lost its standing in the Jewish community.

Many of the opinions focus on two themes simultaneously. The federations are not maintaining their position in the Jewish philanthropic world and are no longer attractive to donors who want to have a direct connection to the causes and institutions they support. At the same time, there have been many comments about JFNA not reflecting a clear purpose or demonstrating its abilities beyond the recognized contribution and success of its representative office in Washington, D.C., that maintains ongoing relationships with the branches of the United States’ Congress and government offices in the capital.

In looking at why JFNA engenders so much criticism we have to discuss its roots and the purpose of organization whose membership is composed of locally based community structures. The historic role of JFNA’s predecessors, The Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (CJWF) and the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), was to maintain a dual focus: 1) meeting the needs of its members and 2) representing the members in both national and international arenas. As the Jewish communities’ priorities shifted so did the focus of the organization representing the federation system.

During the years of the CJWF and the CJF there was clarity about the importance of serving the federations in providing support in order to increase their capacity to function in order to meet the emerging needs of the local and overseas Jewish communities. The organizing principle was to provide federations with services that would strengthen them individually and collectively. The organization’s weaknesses became evident when it expanded its purpose and accepted upon itself the responsibility for representing and advocating for the allocation of funds overseas following the merger with the United Jewish Appeal.

Once this decision was made it meant that the membership organization of the local Jewish communities was not limited to providing services to its constituents. Unfortunately there was never a serious analysis as to whether the inclusion of these added functions would impact on its responsibilities and obligations to its members or whether, in fact, there would be a conflict of interest built into this reorganization of the Jewish community’s national fundraising and allocation process.

I have always been, and continue to be, an advocate for a strong and effective umbrella organization for the local Jewish communities. During the days of the CJF the organization was able to provide information about trends in the communities as well as training for both professional and volunteer leaders. The local federations had an entity that was clearly there to assist them in being more effective and efficient. There was no doubt about what its purpose was and who were its clients.

Of course it is true, that there was a built in disparity in the use of the CJF’s services and an inverted relationship between the dues paid and the use of the organization’s services. This was a result of the fact that the middle size and smaller communities paid lower dues then the larger communities and very often they utilized more of the services offered to the members. It was understood to be part of the notion of the systems commitment to collective responsibility. Of course, occasionally the larger communities complained about the apparent lack of parity, but as long as there was a commitment to ensure the continued development of the system there was an understanding that there needed to be an investment in the smaller communities. Often the larger communities had their own resources and could invest in strengthening their organizations in a way that was not available to the smaller communities.

Another example is JFNA’s General Assembly. At one time the GA was the premier forum for the member agencies to receive information and exchange ideas. It was an opportunity for the federations to strengthen their leadership by exposing them to the larger system beyond the local community and for them to learn about what is going on in other communities. As has been pointed out in postings during the last several weeks, JFNA seems to have lost sight of some of the important functions of this annual gathering.

Yes, questions have been raised about the viability of the federations in the context of the present philanthropic environment. Donors want to know what they are supporting and they want to follow their contributions. Serious questions have been raised about the notion of collective responsibility and whether it is a concept that was saleable in the past put does not have a place in today’s donor marketplace.

These are just the kinds of issues that should be the focus of the federations’ membership organization. We have evidence a great deal of creativity in the larger federations and we have examples like the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, the UJA-Federation of New York, and others that have developed approaches to maintain and strengthen the notion of collective responsibility. Unfortunately, the case is easier to make when we are struggling to meet the needs of the community after devastating events like hurricane Katrina or more recently hurricane Sandy.

The strength of the federation system is its ability to capitalize on the achievements of its member organizations and to develop a shared body of knowledge and experience. The umbrella should provide the glue that enables the members to stay connected with each other. The creativity of those members who not only weathered the change in the philanthropic environment but have been able to strengthen their Jewish communities, and themselves in the process, should be exploited to enable other communities to learn from their experiences. As many of us leave our communities to participate in the GA we should be asking ourselves how work together to influence JFNA so that it “gets it right” before it’s too late.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow.

This article reflects the personal views of the author, and should not be regarded as a statement of the views of eJewish Philanthropy or its funders.