The Jewish Federations’ Big Gamble

As Israeli fundraisers go, Harry was a legend. His solicitation skills were well above average. He was the guiding force in establishing and raising money for a major new Jerusalem project. And when a prospective donor would ask Harry how their donation would be used, he would place his arm around the shoulders of the questioner, bring them close, and respond, “trust me”.

There was a point in time when nothing more than “trust me” was necessary. But even before Harry’s unexpected death a few years ago, the philanthropic world was changing, donors were requiring more information on how their gifts would be utilized and even Harry was slowly coming around.

That the world has changed is apparently a lesson the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has failed to grasp. With the passage this week of the highly controversial Global Planning Table (GPT), JFNA – and as a result the Jewish philanthropic world – has taken a significant step backwards.

Instead of openness and transparency, we’re now saddled with a new level of bureaucracy.

Instead of the nimbleness often needed in allocations, decisions will be entrusted to even more new committees and commissions.

Love, or hate, organizations such as the Jewish Agency and JDC, both have staff on the ground to evaluate and implement a range of global programs. Now, a financially challenged organization will need to spend even more donor money to duplicate that which already exists.

All to what end?

  • Does JFNA really think the GPT will help grow donations (or even slow a decline)?
  • Does JFNA believe the next generation of donors will embrace this type of organizational structure?

If the answer to either question is yes, JFNA has yet to make a case. In fact, other than the scheduled vote (intentionally scheduled at a historically low attendance time) JFNA held no public discussion of this much-touted plan during the just concluded GA. The fact this was a Board decision is no excuse. The potential implications are just too wide-spread.

The fundraising challenges today are very real. Many Jewish federations acknowledge that 2012 and 2013 will likely see decreases in annual campaigns. Organizations of all sizes are forced to do more with less – and many are succeeding admirably. All are concerned about the future. Donors are looking to see the impact being created. But over at 25 Broadway they’re apparently still in the last century; no-one has told them hierarchical organizations have become a dinosaur.

There are exciting initiatives underway in the global Jewish world – not only in North America, but in Europe, the countries of the former Soviet Union and in Israel. In many respects, and despite real obstacles, our Jewish future couldn’t look better. As a community, we could benefit from a strong, and bold, national Jewish federation system.

It’s long past time for JFNA to internalize we no longer reside in the 1980’s. We’re in a new century; one that requires new ways of thinking and acting. We need JFNA (with the full support of their federation owners) to recognize and then proceed in a way that would give reason to their existence. While the current method of funding overseas projects may well be broken, the Global Planning Table is not the solution, but rather a ticking time bomb that will negatively effect Jewish giving going forward.

Dan Brown is the founder of eJewish Philanthropy.