Talk is Cheap

By Keith Greenwald

“The Conversation.” All of our communities have had one (or many). A ‘reimagination’ or a ‘reframing’; a community dialogue and a strategic discussion. They are all the same, even if the framework or the buzzwords are different. Unfortunately, instead of leading to change, ‘Conversation’ has become the primary method for engagement and for the Campaign. And ‘The Conversation’ is where the Federation system lost the mantle of community leadership.

In 2005, 12 years after spending a summer with Alexander Muss High School in Israel, I returned to Israel on the Atlanta Centennial Community Mission. In that short time, Israel and the global Jewish Community had changed dramatically, and it was no different in my community, Atlanta – one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in America. Like other Jewish communities around the county, Atlanta’s collective efforts to address the challenges of the post Cold War era presented an entirely new dynamic. Rather than a deeper sense of cohesion and community, there were even greater signs of fragmentation. Secularization and intermarriage changed the nature of our commonality. Criticism of the State of Israel and the early stages of the BDS movement started to take hold on college campuses. Israel was becoming a partisan issue in US politics and a “wedge issue” inside the Jewish community.

Perhaps most disconcerting was that the core value of, giving to, and taking care of, the collective community was becoming optional, not an obligation as it had been in previous generations. And, technology allowed donors to more easily pick and choose direct ways to give back. We had stopped expecting participation and convinced ourselves that it was the donor’s fault for not “getting it” rather than change our operations around the new reality of young Boomers, Gen X and Millennials.

In 2005, it appeared to me, we knew we had an enormous set of challenges on our hands and bold action by Federation was necessary.

And, for a period of time, it looked like that was going to happen.

Over the next few years, the ‘community’ (led by the Federation) invested in demographic studies and strategic plans, new staffing models and new marketing efforts. Atlanta wasn’t alone; national studies were done by Pew, Jewish Federations of North America and leading Jewish foundations. We talked about meaningful, but ultimately, generic goals of getting more people ‘involved on their own terms,’ being more ‘welcoming,’ respecting view points, more self selection for donors, etc. We engaged leaders like me in initiatives like National Young Leadership Cabinet to bring the ‘next generation’ to the table for conversations about the ‘future.’

We also discussed the ‘business’ of our community organizations – we noticed established organizations operating inefficiently, not utilizing technology well, competing with each other too much, making simple executional mistakes not accepted in for-profit businesses and afraid of doing things differently. Yet even with all of these challenges and all of the data, rather than take action we focused on getting new leaders to be energized and excited to be engaged in the ‘Conversation’ about how to address these challenges.

Rather than hearing the objections from “The Conversation” as the roadmap for change, Federation, and our established communal organizations, have chosen to ignore this feedback. The actual operations and tactics haven’t changed, and the results have worsened: the needs of the community have grown faster than the support from the community.

Strategic planning and leadership have similarly adopted “The Conversation” approach – concerned more about participation than results. First, do a survey or have a community discussion to come to the same demographic conclusions as before. Second, work on and socialize the plan. Third, get the right professional team onboard. Fourth, launch trials of very small programs based on the feedback and brand them as “innovative” to show change is happening. Fifth, after a few years, change the names up a bit and repeat.

This is a reflection of Federation mistaking its role as community convener to mean that the purpose of Federation is to facilitate “The Conversation.” And that participation in “The Conversation” will increase giving. In fact, this is the premise and theme of this year’s JFNA GA: “We need to talk.”

It hasn’t. And it won’t. It’s time to stop having the conversation and start making it happen.

How can we do this? I offer four suggestions:

  • First, Federation needs to focus on its primary role as a fund raising organization. Federation needs to stop shying from this critical point and embrace it. Federation has the ability lead the community ONLY if it is producing results from collective giving. If Federation is just taking a cut and not offering value add then people are better off giving directly, making Federation irrelevant.
  • Second, consolidate community organizations starting with combining Federation, JCC and JF&CS. This would allow each organization to focus on its unique strengths and remove millions of dollars of redundant operations and expenses and for economies of scale to be realized. Federation, as mentioned above, should be the primary fund-raising division, responsible for general collective campaigns, Israel and Overseas, community endowment/legacy, and special directed campaigns. JCC would be responsible for community engagement, on its campus and broadly in the community. JFCS should be responsible for providing for our vulnerable populations, locally and abroad, through direct services and by running the allocations process. The new organization would consolidate governance so that leadership is driven by merit and the needs of the community vs participation and donor development.
  • Third, get rid of the annual campaign. It takes too much energy and effort for the bottom line results and it’s not an effective engagement or donor development tool. Instead, set ambitious and inspiring long term fundraising goals based on outcomes that solve community wide problems. For example, raise $30 million by 2020 to allow for 100% of the community’s children who want it to go to camp. Or raise $10 million by 2019 to build a community wide young leadership program. If you go to a major college or university President, each of them can show you a model of what their campus looks like in the future with the new research center or dorm or the new football training facility that the fundraising will make possible. This is inspiring to donors of all levels and missing from Federation’s approach.
  • Fourth, recognize that outreach efforts will not work if Federation doesn’t walk the walk and embrace social justice as a core value, even if this upsets some of its donors. Representing the community at large, attracting more millennials, the LGBTQ community, interfaith families, etc. is not possible by being silent on critical social issues like religious liberty laws, the nation-state law in Israel, refugees/immigration and bigotry. Instead of huddling in the board room thinking how not to upset donors, lead by taking action that directly helps beneficiaries. Donors will follow a leader.

Ironically, these four suggestions are not new. They are a reversion back to the original roots and core mission. Federation was started for specific and important reasons that are still critical today. By eliminating operations outside the main scope and becoming a focused division of a single organization it will be possible to create real transformation and meet the needs of our community.

Only one organization has the ability to convene the community around a common agenda. This agenda was set in the Torah and Talmud – Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, tikkun olam and tzedakah.

At this point, talk is cheap, ineffective and holding us back. It’s time to take action. Or for Federation to get out of the way.

Keith Greenwald was JFNA National Young Leadership Co-Chair 2012-2013.