What About Our Future?

by Lee Wunsch

What is “community”? This is a difficult question to ask and, today, for many Jewish Federations, it is an existential one as well.

Since the dawn of the Jewish Federation system we have led the Jewish people through their darkest hours and brightest moments. We helped build the State of Israel. We rescued Jews in peril around the world. We developed local infrastructures of social services and educational institutions second to none. We created a philanthropic enterprise that is the envy of many. And we have been the defining and collective voice of our respective communities. Of our history, we have much to be proud.

But what about our future?

In an era of increasing boutique philanthropy, escalating individualism, growing institutional and organizational silos, and the challenges of engaging the “next” generation, our missions are being compromised. Perhaps not all, but many Jewish Federations are facing diminished fundraising results, loss of donors, loss of market share, and an aging cadre of volunteer and professional leadership.

While our major overseas partners quarrel about the share of funds allocated to each of their organizations, Israel-Diaspora relations are changing rapidly redefining our historic connections to the State of Israel and the people of Israel. While individual Jewish Federations struggle with fundraising, local and overseas recipient organizations are directly competing with Federations for a greater share of local charitable dollars. And, while individual Jewish Federations consider their future, local, national and overseas organizations are guilty of “mission creep” – changing their historic (and often successfully fulfilled) missions simply to remain intact as organizations. They are focused on self-perpetuation, not securing the future of the Jewish people. And, all of this is leading to the devolution of “community” – our traditional mandate of “collective responsibility” is evolving into “self responsibility.”

What’s the answer?

The top professional leaders of our Federations, many close to retirement age, have to ask bold, courageous and gutsy questions. They must exercise strong leadership, encourage vigorous debate and respond with an audacious vision for their community. Now is not the time to be timid, vague and unclear. Now is the time to take risks (and most nonprofits are risk-adverse). Now is the time to recognize that, without such leadership, our Federations will continue in a slow downward spiral. Without serious and proactive intervention, I am concerned for our future – as individual Federations and as the embodiment of K’lal Yisrael.

We can continue to do business as usual, “pat ourselves on the backs,” and regale in our glorious history, or, we can hold up a mirror, look at ourselves with all of our flaws and blemishes, and engage in some serious and meaningful introspection.

Engaging in this introspection is difficult and painful. It is uncertain and indecisive. Leaders, particularly professionals, don’t like to work in this environment. We like to know the way down the path and we want to know the outcome before the process has started. But, in today’s environment, replete with demographic changes, economic uncertainty, intense competition and entrenched interests, we have to change our way of thinking.

Our community has started down this path through both tactical and strategic considerations; we have begun a serious local conversation about the future of the community and the Federation. I hope that others will join us and that the Jewish Federations of North America will set aside its short-term planned goals and refocus all of its energy and collective resources on the strategic – building the future of a potentially amazing enterprise.

Lee Wunsch is President and CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.

This article first appeared in The Federation Connection blog; reprinted with permission.