Not Everything Is As It Appears: An Opportunity For Evaluation

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), one of the premier nonprofit organizations in the Jewish community, is about to conclude a search for a new executive officer (CEO) and this provides an excellent opportunity for the organization to examine a number of its practices. I worked in collaboration with the JDC as an employee of a number of organizations for over twenty years. I have had the experience of working for two organizations that no longer exist, the United Israel Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations. More recently I was director of the Israel office of the UJA-Federation of New York.

In each of these roles I worked with JDC staff in the New York and Israel Offices. In light of these experiences I would like to identify a number of issues and challenges facing the organization. The JDC-Israel office has developed and maintains a unique partnership with the Government of Israel and local municipalities and councils. An innovative approach was implemented whereby the JDC utilizes seed funding to leverage their resources and donors’ resources to initiate, and when possible, to sustain new programs. Over the years they have created partnerships focused on the elderly (Eshel), children-at-risk (Ashalim), and the unemployed (Strive), to name a few examples.

In each of these initiatives the JDC has not limited their approach to having an impact on the services provided but have also influenced the social policy guiding the development of these and other services to meet existing and emerging needs. The guiding principle has been to not only fund human services but to also bring the government to the table as a real partner that would eventually assume responsibility for the continuation of the programs. In some cases the JDC would use its own budget and at other times they would encourage donors, foundations or Jewish federations to invest in these initiatives, e.g. UJA-Federation of New York’s role in the founding of Ashalim.

Based on my experience, the JDC frequently experiences conflicts in regard to their responsibility to the funder and their interest in the partnership with the Israeli government. There were times when the JDC staff would support decisions that aligned the organization with the representatives of the government at the expense of their obligation to protect the donor’s interest.

Frequently, I found myself speaking on behalf of the donors or the organizations I represented and facing strong opposition based on the JDC-government relationship and not based on the merit of the issue.

In one specific incident, I was protecting the interest of the UJA-Federation of New York and opposing a decision of the JDC staff in Jerusalem. My perspective was being interpreted as being “negative about JDC” and a complaint was filed with the federation. JDC has to begin to examine the positions it takes in regard to the government and whether or not it is protecting its ability to leverage the government to support its programs and services at the expense of its obligations to its donors and supporters.

Another challenge facing the organization is the extent to which it controls the organizations and programs it funds instead of truly empowering the organizations to determine their own directions. In my experience the JDC consistently exercises control over its initiatives and carefully guides and directs the organization receiving funding to do what it decides will be in the best interest of the JDC. There are times when it is possible to influence the organization to take a different approach but it is not easily achieved.

For example, following the initial influx of Ethiopian Israelis the JDC established a forum of “Ethiopian organizations” or more correctly organizations providing services to the Ethiopian immigrant community. It was composed of both groups indigenous to the immigrant community as well as organizations providing services to the immigrants. It existed for approximately two years and many of the participating representatives had negative feelings about the direction that JDC was giving the group. They did not feel they were being empowered to make the decisions that were in the best interest of the Ethiopian immigrant community. Many of the members experienced the forum as a group the JDC formed to demonstrate what they were doing for the immigrants. It eventually disbanded.

All organizations are concerned with their image and how they are viewed by those outside the organization. I have always experienced JDC as being super sensitive to any question about the nature of its services or the image it maintains. If a survey of Israelis who have worked with JDC and its staff, and of funders, supporters and partners has not been done conducted it would be enlightening and informative. The purpose of such a survey would be to receive feedback as to the extent that JDC is perceived as an honest broker and partner in strengthening Israeli society or perceived as protecting the organization’s position in the organized philanthropic Jewish community and in the Israeli governmental system.

Engaging a new CEO is an exciting time in an organization’s life and provides opportunities for looking at what it does and how it does it. JDC is in a position as it completes its own search process to explore these issues and others that have yet to be identified. The key challenge it faces is whether it is prepared to take the risk of engaging its funders, its partners and its recipients in the process. I hope it does because it will enable the organization to maintain its position and to strengthen its standing and function as a premier arm of the American Jewish community in assisting Jewish communities around the world and Israel.

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.