On September 30, 2009, Jerry Silverman will begin his five year term as CEO of the United Jewish Communities; a position he enters with a most impressive track record. The real question is whether he can be the first CEO in the organization’s ten year old history to steer it in the right direction and build a strong sense of confidence in its ability to achieve its purposes; and accomplish all this with the full backing and confidence of the member Federations.

This is a rather tall order as the UJC has had three very experienced, knowledgeable and skillful predecessors in Stephen Solender, Stephen Hoffman and Howard Reiger sitting at the top. Each of the three brought an unquestioned background of professional commitment and well rounded experience to one of the most senior positions in the Jewish communal world. In spite of their qualifications and skills the overwhelming odds they faced in steering the helm of UJC made it almost impossible for the organization to come of age and to fulfill its self defined mission. It continues to be criticized for not meeting the needs of the North American Jewish Federation movement.

Of course part of UJC’s dilemma is the lack of agreement among the members as to what functions UJC should be performing and what services UJC should be providing to its federation members.

Perhaps the problem is in the joining of the three distinct organizations. It was not a simple task and their various functions are not easily administered by one single body. It might, therefore, be helpful to review the history of UJC’s development and look at the roots of some of the current difficulties.

UJC was created in 1999 by merging or joining three organizations, the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal together. The United Israel Appeal was established in 1924 as the United Palestine Appeal and in 1961 was charged with monitoring tax deductible donations allocated to the Jewish Agency for Israel via the National United Jewish Appeal.

The Council of Jewish Federations was created in 1932 to foster communication between Federations and to strengthen their combined impact. Finally, the United Jewish Appeal was formed in January, 1939, following Kristallhnacht, as a way to bring together the fundraising efforts for the United Palestine Appeal, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the now defunct New York Association for New Americans.

A concise summary of the organizational constituents that make up UJC does not fully communicate the complicated nature of the unique functions of each as well as the number of committed volunteer leaders who served on the various boards of directors and were involved in local, national and international issues confronting the Jewish people in North America, Israel and around the world. These boards also provided opportunities for leaders to circulate among the various organizations and maintain both their affiliation and their financial contributions throughout the years they participated in the governing processes. Thus the organizations not only served separate functions, albeit interrelated, but also worked to strengthen the fabric of the organized Jewish community’s commitment to deal with issues challenging the well being of Jews both nationally and internationally – with a special interest on the needs of Israel.

Toward the end of the 20th Century professionals in various fields began to focus on questions of ‘relevance’, ‘duplication’, ‘coordination’ and ‘cooperation’. As a result questions were raised about the purpose of the network of organizations working in the organized Jewish community for the good of the Federation system and its various worldwide commitments. The national leadership of the Jewish Federations was not happy with not ‘owning’ the UJA and the process of distributing the funds from the local campaigns. Among the changes to be made with the creation of the UJC was the Federations’ ownership of its national fundraising organization (previously UJA) as well as its ‘trade association’ (previously CJF).

In 1999, following almost ten years of interviewing, researching, priority setting and comprehensive planning, the United Jewish Communities was created. Although there was not total agreement among its members as to its prioritization of functions and the services to be delivered, there have been a number of noteworthy accomplishments. In 2000, the Birthright Israel program, providing free trips to Israel for young adults was created; in 2001, the Ethiopian National Project, serving Ethiopian Israelis and focusing on comprehensive absorption of the immigrants was put into place; in 2002, the Israel Emergency Campaign was initiated in response to the Palestinian uprising; in 2003, MASA, the long term Israel experience partnership with the Israeli Government was established; in 2004, the Operation Promise campaign was inaugurated; and in 2006, the special campaign to meet the needs of the Second Lebanese War was conducted.

Putting these accomplishments aside, UJC faces significant challenges not only to its own purposes and functions, but to those of the entire Federation system. In terms of fundraising, in 1991, UJC reported $1.2 billion had been raised by its system. By 1994, the amount dropped to $797 million. The system has continued to struggle to attract new donors and involve younger leadership. For example, research has shown that 75% of Jews 55 years of age and older contribute to Federation campaigns while less than 35% of Jews 35 years old support their local fundraising efforts conducted by the Federation. The younger generation’s disconnect from Israel is no minor part of their lack of support for organized Jewish communal fundraising campaigns. Putting aside questions about the attractiveness of the system’s brands, like, ‘Federations, JAFI, JDC, etc’, there are a number of other hurdles UJC has to overcome in the philanthropic market place. And in light of the present economic recession and the shadows cast by recent financial scandals that have left a black mark on philanthropic endeavors, the UJC has an uphill struggle to maintain their veteran donor base while at the same time attracting new donors. This could be the biggest challenge the UJC system is confronting today.

An additional strike against the new organizational structure is the loss of long time lay leaders who were members of the boards of the national organizations that formed the UJC. Previously committed leaders could maintain their strong ties to the national system, to Israel and to continuing their participation in the campaign by rotating among the different organizations in the national system. Once the UJC board was created there were a limited number of positions and therefore the opportunities for sustained involvement over a number of years became severely limited. For example, one New York lay leader who was rotated off the board of a national organization was able to become president of another national organization for less than 10% of his annual contribution to the UJA-Federation campaign. UJC must find a way to keep people involved and committed to the system.

The next set of challenges has to do with what the member Federations want from UJC. In the ‘old days’ there was a division of labor between CJF, as the trade organization and the UJA National, as the advocate for the overseas needs. Federations generally knew who to go to for what services. The membership dues they paid enabled the CJF to assist them in strengthening individual member Federations as well as representing the system on issues of concern in Washington, D.C. or in Israel, (as during the ‘Who Is A Jew’ Crisis of 1987). Today there is no consensus on what the member Federations want from UJC and more often than not the criticisms are heard loud and clear while the suggestions on how to make the system work better are often contradictory. This has resulted in a national system that is weaker today than it was in 1989 and where the voices of disagreement are louder than those of consensus and unity.

Mr. Silverman’s predecessors implemented planning processes and produced prioritized agendas. Yet, over the last 10 years, UJC had not been able to move the Federations of North America forward to meet the challenges of the present as well as to plan for the future. This is not a question of the relevance of a national organization for the 155 (or so) independent local Jewish communities of North America. There needs to be a voice for the system and it has to be representative of the members and to provide leadership for the unforeseen needs that will be encountered in the future.

During the next two months, the incoming CEO will be winding up business at his present ‘shop’ and will be preparing to engage with new and different challenges. Let us hope that he is able to accomplish all that needs to be done and that UJC is closer to fulfilling its own destiny to strengthen the Federation system today and to prepare it to meet the emerging needs of the Jewish communities’ in the future.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.