Post-GA Analysis: The Global Planning Table and The Need for Clarity

A Jewish collective exists only when Jews act together to tackle their challenges. When a crisis in Israel pulls in tens of thousands of donations for relief programs, the collective is reaffirmed, regardless of the institutional structure handling the checks. And the moment Jews stop doing so, no amount of organizational restructuring will be able to compensate for the fact that the collective has dissolved.

by Haviv Rettig Gur

Outside of its own practitioners, the Global Planning Table is the object of widespread distrust. At the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly last week in Baltimore, it was hard to find support, or even understanding, for the sprawling committee process through which JFNA hopes to restructure how it divvies up federation overseas dollars.

Some of the worry comes from the simple fact that many groups have a lot of income at stake in the new process. The Jewish Agency and Joint Distribution Committee could theoretically lose tens of millions of dollars in the reallocation.

For JFNA, too, the GPT is important. The federations’ national umbrella hopes the new process will bring a wider circle of federations to the table, making them more engaged in the overseas giving overseen by JFNA and, so the theory goes, more generous in giving to the collective overseas budget – a budget managed by JFNA. It is, therefore, also intended to make JFNA itself more central to the federation world’s decision making.

At its core, the GPT is a 42-member committee of donors, grantee organizations and federation professionals that meets every few months in a process intended to map out and prioritize all possible philanthropic targets for federation monies. These discussions are conducted in four working groups: Jewish identity, vulnerable populations, strengthening Israeli society, and community and leadership development. (The GPT will meet again in December and January, and is hoping to publish a preliminary report by April 2013.)

JFNA officials have worked hard for over a year to garner support and buy-in from federations, current grantees and other stakeholders.

Indeed, says Becky Caspi, JFNA’s Senior Vice President for Israel and Overseas who is responsible for the GPT, organizations like The Jewish Agency and JDC may yet see a boon as the process draws more donors in. “The better you know [the work of these agencies], the more chance you’ll value it,” she says.

But skepticism still abounds when it comes to the GPT, which has seen its share of criticism, delays, and the resignation of its top professional in the summer.

And when they ask questions about the GPT, many critics are actually asking about JFNA itself.

Bucking the trend

The GPT seems to be attempting to buck the deepest trends in American Jewish philanthropy, including an increasing focus on local needs and a decreasing willingness by donors (not to mention federations) to send their overseas dollars through large institutions.

As information about overseas programs and needs becomes easier for donors to obtain on their own, and oversight easier to maintain over overseas giving; as organizations like the JDC and JAFI increasingly work outside (they insist “alongside”) the federation system to raise money for projects directly; and as Israeli nonprofits continue to build an unprecedented presence in North America independent of federations – it’s hard not to wonder if the GPT’s focus on getting more federation dollars to go through JFNA isn’t tackling the wrong problem.

The meaning of ‘collective’

The dual crises of Hamas rockets in Israel and Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath in New York underscored for many in the American Jewish philanthropic world the need for “the collective,” or the ability of Jewish organizations to wield vast resources quickly for those in need.

Stephen Hoffman, chief executive of the Cleveland federation and a former head of JFNA, made a forceful case for JFNA’s role, using Sandy as an example.

At a meeting of federation leaders on the sidelines of the GA last week, “we talked about the reaction to Sandy,” Hoffman related. “And John Ruskay, [chief executive] of New York, made a passionate plea and said, ‘If you want to help, don’t send the money to us, send it to JFNA, and we’ll be in a better position to know where the needs are.’”

The reason, Hoffman explained, was that the crisis “crosses boundaries, and there are different needs and different resources in every community. New York can access big money very quickly, but it may be that southern Connecticut can’t, so work it through JFNA. So there’s a value there in doing things as one rather than everybody doing their own thing.”

This is the key argument made in favor of the GPT, and more broadly of sending money overseas through JFNA. And it is an argument that has steadily lost ground over the past 30 years. In 1975, federations accounted for 80% of all American Jewish giving to Israel. By 2007, even as the overall value of that giving doubled (corrected for inflation, to some $2.1 billion), federations’ share of that pool had fallen to just 16%.

While the organizational framework of the federation umbrella has been sidelined, Jewish overseas philanthropy has actually flourished.

And the example of Hurricane Sandy may indeed offer some insight into the causes behind this trend.

IsraAID, a nimble Israeli humanitarian organization that has sent highly-trained relief teams and post-trauma mental health experts to 40 countries over the past ten years, had a team on the ground in Long Island before federations could even announce the establishment of a new relief fund.

And though it wasn’t working through the JFNA “collective,” IsraAID’s work was actually funded by a handful of federations, together with a few Israeli and international corporate donors, all working quickly to reach the affected areas, assess the needs of the local inhabitants and build programs and services to match.

Outside the federation system, such fast-forming yet loose alliances are the norm for organizations large and small.

The Red Cross, hardly a small nonprofit, went to the iTunes Store, the Colbert Report and every pharmacy checkout counter in the region, quickly raising millions from a public that yearned to help.

The Red Cross was indispensable in the wake of Sandy not because it had guaranteed buy-in from constituent chapters or other charities, but simply because it responded more quickly, more effectively and more visibly than other agencies, including government agencies. It was able to deploy 300 emergency vehicles and 8,800 disaster responders, to serve six million meals and offer many thousands of overnight stays in shelters and temporary accommodations for those displaced by the storm and subsequent flooding.

Similarly, American Jewish day schools weathered the financial crisis of 2008-9 relatively unscathed. This was partly due to concerted efforts by some federations, but partly also to the fact that in almost 800 schools across America, Jewish families held their own miniature GPT process – which is to say, they prioritized what they knew was important in their Jewish lives.

The Red Cross’ massive response, like the day schools’ remarkable endurance, suggest that collective action is effective when it taps into the real needs and aspirations of the public.

A Jewish collective exists only when Jews act together to tackle their challenges. When a crisis in Israel pulls in tens of thousands of donations for relief programs, the collective is reaffirmed, regardless of the institutional structure handling the checks. And the moment Jews stop doing so, no amount of organizational restructuring will be able to compensate for the fact that the collective has dissolved.

Through the GPT, JFNA is trying to forge a collective out of likeminded federations. But such a mechanism can’t guarantee the existence and strength of the only collective that truly matters – the informed and engaged Jewish public. How is JFNA helping federations to reach and mobilize that public?

That, surely, is the more important question about collective Jewish action.

The collapse of distinctions

The distinctions that seem to form the basis of the GPT’s explorations, and of allocation decisions in countless federations, are evaporating quickly. The choices being put to the GPT’s committees – overseas or local, identity or volunteerism, leadership development at home or civil society in Israel – are quickly becoming false dichotomies as study after study shows how deeply they are intertwined.

According to a massive 2010 study of American Jewish young leaders titled “Generation of change,” attending a months-long program in Israel is increasingly correlated with being a young organizational leader in your community back in America, and has a measurable impact on your sense of Jewish identity and affiliation.

So when you send a dollar to help fund a ten-month volunteer internship by a young American Jew in an underprivileged Israeli community, do you classify that dollar under the GPT’s “leadership development” rubric, or under “Jewish identity?” Or perhaps simply under “strengthening Israeli society?” Those are three of the four programmatic areas GPT is examining as distinct areas of activity.

Similarly, at least three Israeli agencies are on the ground at this moment in New York and New Jersey helping relief efforts after Sandy, while one of the most important organizations currently looking after the disabled and elderly in southern Israel – those who cannot rush to a shelter when the “Color Red” siren sounds – is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. If Israelis are doing some of the most sophisticated post-trauma work in New York, and American Jews are caring for Beersheba’s most vulnerable during this crisis, it is clearly no longer easy, or perhaps even relevant, to make the sharp distinction between local and overseas.

Where is the data?

The GPT is “a work in progress,” according to David Butler, the Washington attorney who has served as its volunteer chair for much of the past year.

After spending the year determining the four programmatic areas it will examine, the GPT committee is now “getting input” from federation officials and experts “about their view on the very broad and complicated questions we’re asking them,” he explains.

At the GA, several sessions were devoted to this input-gathering, where attendees were asked to respond to questions about what Jewish communal programs seemed more important, and why.

According to Hoffman, the goal was “to take a read of people who are active in the federation world and see if there’s something we’re missing that pops up, or some overwhelming trend that we missed.”

The GPT, he insists, has solicited 25 expert policy papers with ideas the GPT could explore.

Once the priority-setting is completed, says Caspi, “the professional staff will dig for data” about how best to carry out the work the committee has prioritized.

Despite the insistence that data and expertise will be key to the later stages of the process, the initial ordering of priorities seems to be taking place based on the value judgments of the participants rather than data-driven policy examinations. As the process is opaque – Hoffman notes that “right now only 42 people know what we’re doing,” and calls for greater involvement from outside the GPT committee – it’s hard to know if this sense reflects the reality of the GPT, and perhaps explains why so many are confused and nervous about its results, or simply the lack of communications about the committee’s work.

Some of the priority-setting is surely a question of values. What do we mean by Jewish affiliation? Who is a Jew in our community? How central is Israel in our identity and institutional agenda? And so on.

But such questions quickly lose meaning if they are not anchored early on in data-driven examinations of the challenges. Once the committee concludes the obvious, such as that instilling identity and affiliation in young Jews is a key priority, the more serious questions require a completely different approach. Are day schools more, less or equally effective in garnering affiliation and identification than summer camps? Do Israel experiences have long-lasting effects even without follow-up programming? What are the needs of vulnerable populations served by the Jewish philanthropic world? Such questions cannot – must not – be tackled without data and profound expertise.

Yet, though it is leading the federations’ priority-setting process, JFNA does not have an indigenous capacity to generate and analyze data. Instead, it is almost entirely dependent on either grantees such as JDC or The Jewish Agency, or donors such as the New York federation.

At the local level, most federations are the first address for knowledge about their local Jewish community. They usually commission the local studies, measure local needs and demands, and know how to reach out to local organizations and Jewish subgroups.

It’s hard to see a mission more fundamental to the federations’ umbrella, then, than the ability to inform American Jewry more broadly about its deepest trends. The GPT process can only be seriously undertaken in an environment rich in data and expertise. It’s unclear that JFNA has built that environment around the process.

What is JFNA?

And finally, the GPT suffers from JFNA’s own lack of clarity about its purpose.

Is JFNA a trade association that offers services to constituent federations? A Jewish “government” or representative that lobbies in Washington and Jerusalem? A professional advisory (or even decision making) body where federation dollars are divvied up and shipped to projects and organizations?

Those are all radically different missions that demand radically different capabilities. As a lobbyist (at least in the Knesset; its Washington office is widely regarded as successful), JFNA is not an effective agent of influence or change. Professionals from medium and small federations at the General Assembly say it isn’t even on the map as a trade association exchanging best practices, or offering skills development and fundraising expertise for smaller federations. And the GPT process notwithstanding, it is increasingly not the address for overseas giving, even from federations.

Instead of clarifying the organization’s purpose and role, the GPT process seems to be highlighting the confusion.

Those affiliated with the GPT often speak of the need to “grow the whole pie” rather than merely move around a shrinking amount of dollars. But the response of the GPT, the attempt to entice federations to shift more money to GPT-related giving and away from their own local investments, isn’t really “growing the pie” at all. The pie, after all, is generated by the constituent federations themselves. It is their budgets that must grow if anything else in the federation system is to flourish.

For many years now, JFNA has focused too much on its own place in the system, and too little on transforming into what many federations, particularly those smaller than the behemoths of New York or Chicago, desperately need it to be: a clearinghouse of serious research and knowledge, a repository of best practices and clear-headed analysis, an enabler of growth, a living social network for thousands of federation and fundraising professionals across America.

As the trade association of a struggling industry, it is time for JFNA to shift away from its focus on decision making and management of a declining pot of “collective” overseas giving, and truly commit itself to “growing the pot” – to transforming weak federations from beleaguered, collapsing dinosaurs to the innovators and inspiring storytellers that the best, most adaptive federations have become.

What is missing is not a new organization or process, or more terms like “collective” or “partners,” but rather a clear understanding of what JFNA is, and what it is not.

“One should use common words to say uncommon things,” Arthur Schopenhauer once advised.

Nowhere is that more necessary than in philanthropy, where fear of a donor’s displeasure too often paralyzes an institution and robs it of the ability to speak bluntly about its challenges and strategy. It is, perhaps, time for JFNA to speak plainly about the struggling industry that it serves. JFNA isn’t the cause for the weaknesses of the federation world, but neither is it part of the solution.