Response to “Strategy and Self-Deception” by Arthur Sandman

Federations will only raise more money and have greater impact if they focus on achieving a clear vision for the Jewish future. (Gil Preuss)

by Gil Preuss

In a recent article Strategy and Self-Deception, Arthur Sandman states that Jewish Federations are “infatuated with strategy.” He argues that as we favor increasingly “strategic” allocation processes and highlight smaller, more easily measured initiatives, we are paradoxically weakening the very essence and value of national and global Jewish institutions: that is, the scale and reach we achieve through large, unrestricted allocations. Moreover, according to Sandman, Federations that hope to increase fundraising by offering donors more directed giving options have not yet “demonstrated that a change in allocations process markedly improves fundraising results.”

On certain points, Sandman is completely correct – allocation processes do not and will not change fundraising results, nor will they necessarily increase the impact of Federations. Regardless of what it is called, Federations that simply shift how they distribute dollars will never be able to engage people and increase fundraising. In fact, without an overarching vision and strategy driving the allocations process, there is a very real likelihood that increased designated giving would turn Federations into “pass through” agencies for donors to provide targeted grants to specific areas of interest. Such an organization would simply become an incremental overhead expense that can be easily removed through direct giving.

In Arthur’s analysis, however, he misses the true potential of Federations and confuses a structural process with vision and strategy.

A Federation’s responsibility is to articulate a clear vision for the Jewish future and work through all means possible, bringing together all resources necessary, to make this vision a reality. This vision must be clearly developed and then repeatedly articulated throughout the community. Most importantly, a Federation must work with any and all people and partners to deliver on this vision. It includes working with traditional organizations as well as new start-ups and bringing in many organizations frequently not funded by Federations but that play an important role within the communal vision.

At Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP), we have been directly linking our allocations to our strategic priorities for more than 15 years. When we changed our allocations process, we did not simply take existing allocations and break them down into smaller pieces. Instead, we engaged in a thoughtful process wherein our allocations were driven by our collective vision.

Following the completion of our 2008 Strategic Plan, we expanded upon this approach; we no longer seek to fund programs, but rather to deliver integrated strategies. Our focus is always on the goals and outcomes we seek to achieve rather than on any specific program or organization.

Over the past ten years, we have also increasingly integrated our donor’s voice and vision into this process; they are the driving force to making the vision come alive. Today, approximately 1/3 of our Annual Campaign is designated. However, these designated funds are far from the “grant-making” model that Sandman decries. All designated gifts are aligned towards achieving our communal strategic priorities.

For example, one of CJP’s priorities is to care for those in need, particularly those with disabilities. Two years ago we launched an employment program for young adults with disabilities. CJP does not deliver the program, but convenes multiple local organizations (Jewish and non-sectarian) to provide training and employment. Moreover, we fund the program by partnering with the Ruderman Family Foundation. Their defined mission – “to create and promote innovation that fosters inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community and Israel, and to strengthen relationships between Israel and the U.S. Jewish community” – is strongly aligned with CJP’s strategic priorities. By bringing together agencies and foundations around a clear vision and strategy, CJP is able to move our collective agenda forward while engaging donors.

The result is that over the past ten years, CJP’s campaign has grown from $29.3 million to $48.7 million. This is a 5.2% annual growth rate over those ten years including the economic crash in 2009 where we had a 9% drop in our annual campaign. Moreover, we have seen tremendous growth in engagement and giving among the next generation of donors. Over the past year, campaign giving among donors the age of 30-45 has grown by almost 30%. We believe that our focus on funding broad strategies of significant impact and then achieving these strategies has been one factor in the growth of our campaign.

In some ways, CJP has been fortunate in that we never faced the depths of the recession as experienced elsewhere, and have recovered faster than others. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that our mandate to remain true to our clear vision and strategic thinking and our funding and allocation model (including the full engagement of donors in our work) through unrestricted and designated giving has served as the key factors in enabling CJP’s success. Our Campaign has grown precisely because donors want to invest in making change in the community and achieving our collective vision.

Organizations whose focus is simply to raise more money than the previous year, will always struggle to do so. Taking the same agenda and breaking it into small pieces will never excite people.

Federations will only raise more money and have greater impact if they focus on achieving a clear vision for the Jewish future. The allocation model is not the issue. In that, Arthur Sandman and I fully agree. Nevertheless, vision and strategy do matter.

Gil Preuss is Executive Vice President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.