Transforming the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

LA-Jewish-FederationBy Jay Sanderson

[Remarks presented at the Annual Board of Directors meeting, December 18, 2014.]

Five years ago, after almost 100 years, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles embarked on a new journey. Our leadership recognized that, in order the make the greatest, most lasting impact on Jewish life in Los Angeles, Israel and around the world, we needed to do more than change. We needed to undertake a thoughtful, deliberate and dramatic process of transformation.

We have a rich past, so we looked back before we looked forward. We have played a central role in Los Angeles and in the Jewish community. We have created and supported a strong communal infrastructure of agencies and institutions. We were instrumental in the building of a strong State of Israel and in the immigration and resettlement of Jews from around the world to Los Angeles.

Since its beginning, our Federation was self-defined and defined by the community as an umbrella of beneficiary agencies. Over time, these agencies expanded in size and mission, and the Jewish community expanded – by geography, ethnicity and connection, and in complexity.

We recognized that we needed to take action, to be more responsive to these major changes. We entered into a thorough and transparent process of self-examination. We asked tough questions – of ourselves, the community and our donors. We asked the engaged and the disengaged.

This is a process that continues every day and will continue as long as we do our essential work. Transformation is a process without an end. Transformation can be messy. We have embraced that messiness and charged ahead – without letting anything slow us down. As a result, we redefined our mission and revised our mission statement, putting Jewish values and Jewish community front and center.

We made sure that our new mission statement was on all of our printed material to continually reinforce our intentionality. It reads “Based on Jewish values, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles convenes and leads the community and leverages its resources to assure the continuity of the Jewish people, support a secure State of Israel, care for Jews in need here and abroad, and mobilize on issues of concern to the local community, all with our local, national, and international partners.

We doubled the size of the word “Jewish” on our logo. This was not just a symbolic gesture. This was a recognition validated by the community that our work is deeply Jewish and our primary commitment is to the Jewish community. We are dedicated to healing the world but we believe that we must heal the Jewish world first.

We had critics and faced our criticism head on. We learned that we had a major perception problem. Detractors called our Federation “a big black hole,” “just a consolidator” or a “fund of funds.” They told us that they never knew where the money went. They spoke more about overhead costs than about our work and its impact. But more importantly, we found out that we were ignoring a new wave in philanthropy in which donors – especially those under the age of 50 – wanted to be more connected to their giving and to the recipients of their philanthropy.

But this was more than an identity issue. It was more than a generational issue. This was about our Federation’s value proposition and about three simple but central questions: “What” “Why” and “How.”

The “What” is the question most easily answered. Simply put, we do two things: we support and sustain today’s Jewish community and we are building the Jewish community of the future.

“Why” gets to the core of our transformation and is our definitive value proposition. It is the basis for our innovative new business model, fundraising strategy, and evolved lay partnership and engagement.

“Why Federation?” Our answer is big and bold. Because we are the obvious choice. No other body has the broad community input and support needed to evaluate our Jewish community’s changing landscape. No other organization is positioned to rise to our greatest challenges and capitalize on our most exciting opportunities. We face them with our partners collaboratively, with purpose and passion. Our goal is to make significant, long-term impact.

We are no longer an umbrella of beneficiary agencies. Our new model is based on priorities, partnership and leverage. We are focused on the people in the community that need us and the challenges we must meet. This is the foundation of the transformed Federation. It is our unique and powerful value proposition.

“How” also relates to a new set of business principles. We are responsible, transparent and data-driven – as any well-run, agile business must be to succeed in today’s world.

In addressing these questions, we deconstructed and rebuilt a Federation that is mission driven, values driven, priority driven and impact driven. Our mission provides clarity and purpose. Our Jewish values inform our work and how we do our work. Our clearly defined priorities focus us and our partners on the tasks at hand. And the result is measurable impact on the community we serve.

The rebuilding began with the recognition that our Federation is a business and that, as a business, it had to function more effectively. We reorganized and restructured our operations to be more efficient and to deliver the highest percentage possible of our charitable dollars to our priorities.

Beginning on day one, we understood that the transformation process was highly dependent on building the best possible staff, putting them in the right positions, and surrounding them with the tools to be successful. We put a premium on talent acquisition and retention. We made major changes affecting over seventy percent of the work force. We instituted a work schedule based on achieving maximum job efficiency. We eliminated duplication. Previously, every major department had its own accounting practices and was responsible for its own purchasing. Today, all of our financial functions are centralized and systematized.

We understood that our donors were investors – investors in the Jewish community. We needed to gain their trust, understand their interests and concerns, and be able to report to them on a regular basis about the performance and success of their investments. We needed to demand more of ourselves and more of our partners by establishing evaluation standards and by deepening the work of our lay committees.

We adopted a new mantra and we repeat it over and over again: We are in the relationship business – committed to building strong, lasting relationships with our community, our partners and our donors.

We understand that meaningful and honest relationships like transformation can be messy. There needs to be a place to grapple and struggle for the common good.

Under our umbrella model, we didn’t need to relate to the community. Our fundraising success dictated our allocations and history defined our partnerships. Today, we see our relationship to the community as primary. We started with a new beginning. We began by listening without preconditions. We are in a continuous dialogue.

We understand that Los Angeles is unique. We are hundreds of micro-communities defined by vast geography, ethnicity, socio-economics, age and family background. Los Angeles has redefined individualism in America. Rather than ignore this, we embrace it in our process and in our work.

Our historic relationships with our local and national agencies were challenged. Years of annual allocations bred entitlement. And a lack of clear communication bred misunderstanding. It was imperative that our relationships become partnerships based on shared values, shared priorities and measurable outcomes.

Like all transformations, this was a challenging process. But the result is that we have opened up exciting new partnerships. In our work in Israel, we are working hand in hand with the Israel Trauma Coalition, focusing on community development, self-sufficiency, trauma response and resiliency in Israel’s most vulnerable communities.

This transformation has revamped and recharged historic partnerships. Our collaborations with Jewish Family Service on providing life-saving support services through our synagogues; the American Joint Distribution Committee on the establishment of medical centers in the Baltics; and with the Builders of Jewish Education on the new pluralistic high school Israel trip Epic Israel are all powerful examples.

We are the second largest Jewish community in the world. We believe in Jewish Peoplehood and collective responsibility. Since its inception, The Jewish Federation system (now JFNA) has been driven by Federations in the East and Midwest.

Five years ago, we asserted our role to better represent our community’s interests and needs. Our intention is to continue to put pressure on the system to transform and better understand and support Jewish life west of the Mississippi. Our national work needs to be forward-looking and priority focused. It shouldn’t be tied primarily to historic partnerships and “because that’s how we got here” thinking.

Many Federations identify themselves as fundraising organizations and judge their successes by the size of their campaigns. We are not a fundraising organization. We are a forward thinking, problem-solving organization that raises funds to support our mission and our work.

For decades, donors gave to the Federation because their parents did. They gave out of a sense of history and obligation. The Federation’s Annual Campaign was losing thousands of donors each year and had been flat for over a decade. Historic giving was in decline. Our donors were giving us a message and we needed to hear them. We needed to change our work so that we could show a clear value proposition to investing in us. We had to demonstrate how our work makes a material difference in the lives of our community members today and how it is shaping the future.

We needed to get out of our offices and into our donor’s offices. Our Campaign professionals’ responsibilities needed to change. We established quantifiable expectations focusing on stewardship and cultivation. We moved the solicitation process from banquet rooms to living rooms.

Strategic Philanthropy is a dynamic outgrowth of this intensive work. Strategic Philanthropy is not directed giving. It is both a pragmatic and aspirational answer to the question “how do you grow a flat campaign in today’s world?” Now, our lay committees and staff identify new priority-based initiatives, bold ideas that would need additional funding above and beyond our Annual Campaign to succeed.

After they are vetted, these initiatives then become a part of our conversations with major donors. We call it “discovering the sweet spot” between communal need and donor passion.

We believed that Strategic Philanthropy had the power not just to enhance our work, but that it would ignite our Annual Campaign. Over the two years since we launched Strategic Philanthropy, we have raised millions of additional dollars and our Annual Campaign has steadily and significantly increased, both in total dollars raised and in net total donors. We are now closing our most successful Campaign in over a decade.

In 2013, our Community Camping Initiative and our Community Leadership Institute were funded through Strategic Philanthropy with great and continuing success. In 2014, our partner Jewish Family Service came to us with a critical community need. Hundreds of Holocaust Survivors were in jeopardy of losing their homecare aides because of a $1 million funding shortfall. This became a Strategic Philanthropy priority and we successfully achieved our fundraising and program delivery goals.

Our Federation is led by a partnership between lay leaders and talented professionals. We have raised the stakes in this partnership by dramatically increasing the depth – not the breadth – of our work. We began and continue to engage in the exploration of the central questions that influence our work and impact the future of our community. This is work that is not top-down. It is both top-down and bottom-up. The partnership between our lay and professional leadership is defined by mutual respect and by clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

In the past, given our never-ending work, we were unable to pay attention to the relationship our Federation had to its staff and our staff had to each other. Unlike most successful businesses, we did not focus on staff development and the establishment of a positive, nurturing and enriching work place. In year five of our transformation, this has become a major priority. Management began by valuing and listening. Staffs from every department are now invested in making our Federation “the best place to work in the Jewish world”.

Four and a half years ago, we launched “The Next Big Jewish Idea.” This was much more than a marketing and e-mail campaign. Our Federation declared to the Jewish world that we were committed to big ideas and creative solutions. We have gone beyond that commitment and have established ourselves as an incubator, a program designer and a program implementer.

Young adult engagement became a priority at the beginning of our transformation. The immediacy of the challenge was supported by work completed in 2013 by the Pew Research Center. We invested three years in research and development. We convened groups and organizations focusing on this demographic group. We spent months meeting with young adults, both the engaged and the disengaged. We traveled around the country seeking out best practices.

When it became clear that we needed new approaches to this challenge, we created new programs and strengthened existing ones based on what we learned.

NuRoots, the Birthright Experience, the Community Leadership Institute, YALA (Young Adults of Los Angeles) and the New Leaders Project are the core of our dynamic young adult strategy. That strategy includes partnerships with dozens of other organizations and synagogues and is symbolic of how our transformation has impacted how we do our work.

We are passionate about ensuring the Jewish future because this work is personal to us. It is our debt to our ancestors and our gift to our children and grandchildren. It is our unwavering commitment to a Jewish journey for every Jew in Los Angeles supported by a vibrant, accessible and affordable Jewish community. This is our number one priority.

If transformation is a process without an end, what will the next five years look like?

Los Angeles will build on its successes and learn from its failures as both a laboratory and model for Jewish communal engagement in North America.

Our work and our partnerships will deepen and strengthen. We will launch the Los Angeles Jewish Abilities Center, making sure that adult Jews with disabilities have the tools they need to thrive and a community that welcomes and includes them.

Our Synagogue Initiative will become a major focus, as we continue to work closely with our synagogues on our shared communal priorities.

We will invest significantly more resources in our Israel Advocacy and Education so that our community can speak to the complex challenges facing Israel with clarity and passion.

Above all, we will continue to transform.

Jay Sanderson is President & CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.