Spotlight: Dr. Ernest Kahn: An Icon in America’s Jewish Community Speaks Out

by Robert I. Evans & Avrum D. Lapin

    “Be aware of trends in your fields, but don’t think that one size fits all. Going against the trend doesn’t mean everyone else is wrong.”

    —Dr. Ernest M. Kahn

Another in our continuing series of interviews with prominent Americans familiar with the Jewish non-profit world brought us to Dr. Ernest Kahn. For more than 40 years, Dr. Kahn has played visible roles in various Jewish organizations across North America and today he is considered a go-to resource for social service, educational, and community organizations looking to their futures. He has spent decades in numerous executive and leadership positions in academia, at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, as acting president of Gratz College and providing critical leadership input for a number of important traditional Jewish organizations. His latest professional assignment found him at the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia as that organization addressed its future through a complex break-up of its various parts into stand-alone Centers serving distinct components of Philadelphia’s Jewish population.

EHL/eJewishphilanthropy: Given the fluctuations in the economy, are there any changes that organizations need to make to have the best chance for success going forward?

Dr. Kahn: We are seeing a real shift in the area of governance and of accountability. Either donors or taxpayers are footing the bills so accountability must be all- encompassing. Besides accountability, organizations need to provide much more intensive training for leaders and a clarification of their procedures. Jewish organizations and others need to implement those procedures strictly and uniformly to provide for better results, consistency, and credibility.

EHL/eJewishphilanthropy: You have overseen the break-up of a large community organization into smaller and different component parts with distinct identities and missions, essentially bucking the current trend of merger or consolidation. Are there techniques or approaches that you would recommend to nonprofit organizations considering this approach or those in the process of re-structuring, re-imagining or re-branding themselves?

Dr. Kahn: As Jewish organizations look at re-structuring, I suggest that it is more effective to de-centralize rather than centralize authority. From both housekeeping and accountability perspectives, the focus of organizational activity must always be on meeting the needs of clients and service recipients. Large organizations too often forget this mandate.

Part of the work week also has to be devoted to non-client related actions. I believe in education certainly and not making staff training a priority is a mistake. Not focusing on non-client related actions creates confusion, sloppiness, and avoidable mistakes. For example, some large organizations have their local branches shove their expense receipts into envelopes and send them to the central office for filing and payment. This is bad practice as the receipts can be mishandled and processed incorrectly. Clarity must start at the lowest level. The ‘circle of accountability’ sometimes never starts and organizations are forced to deal with honest but sloppy workers.

EHL/eJewishphilanthropy: With the need for better internal management and accountability, is there a more effective role for outside experts?

Dr. Kahn: Nonprofits must be aware that when dealing with hired experts, there is a difference between legal responsibilities and being a ‘good worker.’ For example: is your auditor being pro-active? What are the laws for handling petty cash? Has your outside accountant clearly defined proper systems for your organization? Effective and vibrant Jewish organizations must use hired experts, especially if they are looking to remain fresh and contemporary.

EHL/eJewishphilanthropy: Are there differences or similarities regarding Israeli and U.S. nonprofits?

Dr. Kahn: Board and organizational structures vary everywhere. For instance, CEO’s have far broader power in Israel than their counterparts in the United States. In empowering leaders and other volunteers, one should ask if there are appropriate guidelines in place, realistic expectations set, and adequate follow-up. In addition, are there evaluations done to ascertain if the programs and activities are appealing to volunteers and that leaders are appreciated and effective?

EHL/eJewishphilanthropy: What is the landscape of the Jewish nonprofit community five years from now and what efficiencies should be retained when the economy upticks?

Dr. Kahn: Economics constantly impact the Jewish nonprofit world. Fiscal discipline and controls sharpened during this recession need to be maintained when the economy recovers. Products and services will continue to modify because changes are necessitated by economics as well. Creating a broader understanding among employees about fiscal controls will represent a lasting and positive legacy of the recession in the Jewish nonprofit community. Professional and volunteer organizational leaders will be looking long and hard when dealing with higher expenses so efficiencies created by necessity in the last months will hopefully remain as a focus of future operations.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to EHL Consulting works with dozens of non-profits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.