The Struggle for Relevance: JFNA and Overseas Allocations

I have spent the last several weeks studying JFNA’s Select Core Priorities (SCP) and its desire to reach consensus in the regard to the “Global Planning Table” (GPT). Yesterday, JFNA released a “Leadership Briefing entitled Board Addresses Global Responsibility, Planning for the Future” (Dated May 23, 2011). I have read the available material on the Internet, spoken with volunteer leaders, and discussed it with professionals in the Federation field. During this time colleagues and I reached out to professionals at JFNA to engage them in a discussion and unfortunately we received less than a substantive response. It appears that JFNA’s recent Board Meetings created additional processes with fewer decisions leading to clearly defined preferred actions for the Federation system.

I have been involved in Jewish communal service for over 40 years and I have worked in and observed the international Jewish communal arena for more than 25 years. For almost the last twenty years there has been a great deal of structural change in the way the “players” have related to each other and tried to move their common and separate agendas forward. I am sure that many readers remember the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF) and the United Jewish Appeal (UJA). These two organizations were combined and went through phases from “Newco” to “United Jewish Communities” (UJC) to “The Jewish Federations of North America” (JFNA). All along the way there was, and continues to exist, an inherent tension on how the organized Jewish Federation community and individual local (Federation) communities would conceive of and organize to meet both local and overseas needs.

When the two separate organizations existed, CJF and UJA, it was relatively clear that CJF, as a membership organization, represented the interests of the local Federations and the system as a whole. The organization both advocated for the Federations’ interests and provided services to meet a continuum of needs from leadership development to endowment funds to structuring campaigns. UJA’s role was to be an advocate for the overseas needs and to continually provide information and represent the interests of the Federation’s overseas partners, mainly the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) through the United Israel Appeal and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

Following the dismantling of the old framework and the creation of the UJC a new system called ONAD, Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution, was put into place. A more comprehensive understanding of the ONAD process can be found here.

Although the ONAD process was an interesting experiment in Jewish communal planning it successfully created an inordinate amount of tension and competition between the overseas partners. It is unclear whether it could ever be referred to as a “success” in achieving comprehensive planning for the Federations’ overseas agendas. It did manage to demonstrate how the system could not achieve its goals. There was an attempt to distinguish between JAFI and JDC. They were aiming to show how the two organizations were able to identify emerging needs overseas and develop services that were, at the very least not competitive, and, at the very most, complimentary in their purposes and implementation.

Given the ONAD experience we would expect JFNA to design a system that would avoid the pitfalls of the previous experience. It should have aimed at creating a process that would not only bolster the local communities’ campaigns but also provide opportunities to strengthen the relationship between the overseas partners and the Federation system. Apparently the SCP 2011, was presented to the leadership of JFNA and local Federations and there was agreement on the idea but apparently, not in regard to implementing the SCP across the continent.

It appears as it if was easier for JAFI and JDC to overcome their competitiveness and agree to work together than it was to achieve implementation within the Federation system:

The proposed framework contains four key elements: revitalization of the historic global partnership of Jewish Federations, JDC and the Jewish Agency; establishing clear goals and operational guidelines for collective overseas engagement; creating a global planning table; and establishing an enhanced overseas allocations process for Jewish Federation funding. (Agreement Reached on Overseas Funding Framework, September, 2010)

Even though this framework was endorsed by the two overseas partners, it appears that there was no unity within the Federation system. In light of the SCP 2011, there was an expectation that local Federations would allocate funds overseas using these priorities. Unfortunately for the system there were communities that allocated lower amounts, perhaps as little as 5% of their campaign, and there were other communities that made a decision to forward upward toward 30% or more to JFNA for the overseas partners for their core budgets.

Once this imbalance was established it made it harder and harder for the system to agree to a GPT that would not only be accepted but also endorsed by the system. Those who are supportive of finding a system that would not only unify the Federations but also raise additional funds for allocating overseas are frustrated. The national system is not acting collectively and local Federations are finding it very difficult to look beyond their own local (and somewhat personal) interest.

Federations that are committed to both JFNA and the core budgets of the overseas partners, like New York and Chicago, may find it difficult to sit at the same table with communities that allocate either a small percentage of their funds to the core budgets or nothing at all.

If, and when, the GPT is utilized as a tool for decision-making it may be that some of the donor families that have been the “die-hard” supporters of the campaigns for decades will threaten to walk away because decisions are being made by Federations that do not represent their values or commitments to the overseas partners.

It appears that the disparity of interests among the member Federations has made it very difficult for the system to achieve consensus. The lack of a basic agreement among its members for the purposes of raising funds and allocating them to the overseas agencies raises serious questions about JFNA’s relevance. Does it lack the ability to fulfill its mandate as the membership organization of the Federations (ala CJF), on the one hand, and the advocate for overseas needs and services (ala UJA), on the other hand?

If the SCP and GPT are really a re-issuing of the less than successful ONAD process, then one has to question the relevance of JFNA in dealing with the challenges the Federations face in raising the funds the overseas agencies need to implement programs and deliver services. Something has to be done to motivate the national system to act collectively and to regain the shared passion that once existed in the way local communities raised and allocated funds. If this cannot be achieved by the local, national and international organizations then perhaps the present system needs to be re-examined.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program.