By Richard Wexler
The last time that JFNA published the data on foundations and endowments within the Jewish federation world was in 2017, the statistics from 2016. Back then, the total of “assets under management” was $21.7 billion (you read that correctly). And, with most, if not close to all, of our communal institutions in extremis still in the midst of the COVID pandemic, the question has to be asked: when will any of our organizations – are you listening JFNA – take its head out of the sand and argue for an immediate and urgent commitment of funds before (if we aren’t there already) to these vital foundational blocks of the communities and the social safety net that we have built? WHEN?
In the earliest of days, even before the extent of the financial catastrophe that would accompany the pandemic but as an integral consequence of it, a small number of major Jewish Family Foundations stepped forward to address …. certainly not meet – address … what was then the incipient emergency. These Foundations recruited each other, ultimately raising a formidable $91 million through a vehicle they named the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund – as always, an acronym: JCRIF. Reading between the lines of the JCRIF‘s self-description, these founding Foundations were done soliciting other Foundations to join them, while the Fund “…welcomes additional investors.”
I doubt that now, as our organizations confront the incredible, overwhelming unmet needs generated by the pandemic directly and collaterally, anyone believes that $91 million – as generous as that contribution for interest-free loans and an “aligned grant program” was, it could not possibly fully address the overwhelming needs … needs that grow 24/7. Yes, there are a number of remarkable communities, like Chicago, where the most generous have reached even deeper in the midst of the pandemic; but many more are confronting multi-million dollar deficits, closing agencies and programs … and getting neither guidance nor financial support from what we used to call “the system.”
And, so the question – what’s next? What might be done?
And, friends, the seminal question: is this the best that we can do …. really? Our federations and our agencies and beneficiaries are facing the worst financial crisis in their (and our) history and, after this initial voluntary funding from that small number of Foundations … nothing. Why? What exactly is that “rainy day” these foundations and endowments have been building the corpus of their funds for, if not the deluge of today? So many of these self-same foundations and endowments have been built for the long-term on the philanthropic aspirations of the donors the distributions from which may or may not support the Jewish community or the organizations at the community’s core. (In fact, I once asked the CEO of one of Large Cities most significant Jewish Community Foundations why they even keep “Jewish” in the name inasmuch as over 80% of its distributions were not to Jewish organizations.) To meet the real crisis of today, that must change.
JFNA, which as the inheritor by merger of the systemic fund-raising flag once flown with pride by the long-forgotten (by some) United Jewish Appeal, seems wholly satisfied with the allocations role assigned to it within JCRIF – fund-raising? Are you kidding? (Also, one can only note with frustration that JFNA seems to believe that it can continue with “business as usual” in the midst of the deepest financial crisis in communal organization history. How else can one explain the glee that JFNA leaders expressed over its brand new Changemakers programs, the latest shiny object to distract the so easily distracted?)
I know from historic experience that in its day, the UJA – maybe with the similarly extinct Council of Jewish Federations – would have immediately convened a national meeting (today by Zoom) to rally the federations, to lay out a national plan on the JCRIF “model” of loans and grants by reaching out to those whose wealth, the super majority of which is found in Supporting Foundations and Donor Advised Funds to recognize the emergency in which communities and beneficiaries find themselves today and then act in a manner similar/identical to that of JCRIF. Contrary to what appears to be the case evidenced by JFNA’s inaction, this advocacy is one of the core purposes for which JFNA was created.
Yes, this would be hard. In many (most??) instances it would change the historic Planned Giving and Endowment “model” – just raise and manage the funds and let the donor determine the beneficiaries – no advocacy for any cause let alone a Jewish communal one. The reality of the historic crisis which we are all confronting now and into an indeterminate future cries out for changed practices. After all, the application of even a small portion of the $21.7 billion in assets under management (and, surely, that corpus has grown in the four years since the last accounting) could mean life or death to the social safety net federations and our local/national/overseas agencies have built over their history.
Now is not the time for timidity.
Richard Wexler is a Past Chair of the United Israel Appeal, the United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, among other leadership roles.
First published on UJThee and Me