Time to Rethink Jewish Nonprofits

by Howard Wohl

I have had the privilege of being engaged with a fair number of Jewish so-called ‘nonprofit’ or ‘not for profit’ organizations. I have a few suggestions to make. The first is simple – drop the terms nonprofit and not-for-profit. They mislead donors into thinking that they are ipso facto run poorly compared to for-profit organizations. Not just donors think so; those who work for these organizations set the bars unnecessarily low.

Now, as a good capitalist I do not have any issue with making money or raising one’s profile. A bottom line that distributes its profits to its owners may be nice, but, truth be told, the bottom line of any Jewish organization that is worth sustaining is far more important. Whether it be securing the future of our Jewish Community, helping to feed and educate Jewish People, advocating for the Jewish State or engaging with and nurturing tomorrow’s Jewish leaders, these goals are lofty and worth funding. So, let’s not minimize the value of our Jewish Organizations and let us hold them to higher standards.

What we call them is not so important but it helps in framing the issues and asking a number of questions. I am tired of hearing leaders of Jewish Organizations too often say, “We cannot afford to pay the same compensation as a for-profit organization.” Why? How can we expect to have serious, well-managed Jewish Organizations providing important services when they tie their own hands and we automatically consign them to lower-class status?

What Jewish value states that Jews who work for the Jewish Community ought to pay for the privilege by taking a pay cut? Why would Jewish parents encourage their children to go to the top universities, take on enormous debt and then struggle financially? Why would we, the Jewish Community, want to have anything less than the most talented individuals managing the Community’s affairs?

If we were to think of Jewish Organizations as businesses, we might demand greater accountability and focus more on how they operate – on the quality of leadership, on the value they provide, how they tell their message and how efficiently they are managed. Yes, we have too many Jewish Organizations providing the same or similar services, costing the Jewish Community more than we should have to pay. In the business world, survival of the fittest has, for example, reduced the number of breweries from thousands to a handful of major players and a decent number of boutiques. The same is true with manufacturers of computers and cell phones. Yet Jewish Organizations never die and they rarely fade away. We must demand that the best be made stronger and the worst disappear. Any organization has to convince its customers (clients, buyers, users) that it provides something of value. Do Jewish Organizations? Unlike Halo Shampoo and Ipana, the Henry J and Commodore Computers, failing Jewish Organizations stay on and on. We even cry when one fails to gain support and actually goes out of business.

Businesses need to sell their products and to continually make them better and cheaper, but Jewish Organizations are held to no such standard. They seem offended that they need to be held accountable. Jewish funders, including local federations and private foundations, need to be more demanding. They also need to make tough decisions, making Jewish Organizations meet ever higher standards that are measurable and meaningful.

Sadly, the Jewish Community has hundreds of plenipotentiaries but few decision-makers. So, too, the Jewish Community has not done enough to welcome fresh thinking, younger voices, individuals who do not necessarily provide substantial funding but offer new energy and access to new ideas. It is time that we get serious, putting our money where it creates the greatest possibility that we will have a stronger, more vibrant Jewish Community tomorrow.

One thought is for a serious organization, perhaps the Jewish Funders Network or other organization of donors, to set standards and place a seal of approval on those Jewish Organizations that meet those aspirational goals. We cannot continue to have an uninformed Jewish population paying for solutions to yesterday’s problems and for organizations incapable of providing those solutions. It is also time for the vast majority of non-Orthodox Jews to start working on strengthening our institutions and building new models that are attractive, engaging, meaningful and spiritual. If we do not, we will have a Jewish population much like in Israel, where a minority of ultra-Orthodox and often non-Zionist Jews unilaterally decide what Judaism stands for and looks like. Let’s get to work!

Howard Wohl is a philanthropist involved in a number of charitable organizations. Howard spent more than forty years leading two successful businesses. His views are based on decades of involvement and he is proud to be associated with organizations undergoing change and working for the welfare of the Jewish People.