Who are Federation’s Customers? (Hint: it is not our donors)

By Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D.

The key to business success is serving the customer – figuring out what he or she needs and delivering on that need. But who are the customers of nonprofit organizations, our donors or our clients? More specifically, who are the customers of our Federations?

I believe our customers are the institutions, programs and services that make up the Jewish Public Sphere, the ecosystem that helps individuals live with dignity, meaning and purpose, connected to the Jewish tradition, our people and Israel, as part of a life, well lived.

Yet many people continue to view our donors as our customers. Donors and fundraising are critically important to sustain the work we do. But I believe it is a mistake to think of ourselves and our customers in this way. For when any nonprofit views its donors as its customers it is a good sign that it has lost its way.

The word “customer” comes from a root with two meanings: “purchaser” and “user.” In the business world, customers are often simultaneously “purchasers” and “users” of the product or service being sold.

For nonprofits, purchasers and users are more likely to be different people: “donors” on one hand; “clients” or “constituents” on the other. Sustainable nonprofits need both donors and clients to execute their missions. But we must choose which of these two senses of “customer” is going to drive whom we serve and what we do.

The most successful nonprofits define their customers and mission by reference to their clients, not their donors. Successful hospitals serve the sick, not those who were inspired to endow a new cardiac unit. Successful universities serve their students and faculty, not those who were inspired to support a research lab.

When we define our customers as our donors, we lose sight of the mission that our fundraising efforts support. We risk fomenting cynicism, just as a university or hospital faces when it is accused of caring more about its donors than its students or patients.

Admittedly, Federations have had a hard time articulating what our missions are apart from our fundraising.

Sometimes we try to explain our missions by referencing the existential crises of world Jewry in the 20th Century that our work helped ameliorate: the global migration and post-Holocaust crises in the first half of the century, the founding and sustaining of the State of Israel, and the rescue of oppressed Jewish communities around the world (most recently of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry in the 1990s).

But these achievements do not constitute a mission. They are the results that emerged from delivering on our mission. And because our mission is hard to articulate, as the existential crises of the 20th century have begun to recede, all that we seem to be left with is “fundraising.”

I believe that Federations have and continue to have a noble mission: to sustain the North American Jewish Public Sphere, the institutional ecosystem that enables individuals in North America to lead meaningful Jewish lives connected to the Jewish people and Israel, and in service to others. This mission directs us to sustain the institutional capacity to meet the needs of our most vulnerable and inspire engagement in our tradition and our communities. And it was this public sphere that enabled us to respond so effectively to the crises of the last century.

The idea of a “public sphere” is abstract, but it is familiar through the images that infuse American history.

The American public sphere is captured in scenes of New England villages, small towns along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and through the images conveyed in the literary works of Tocqueville, Thoreau, and Twain. It is depicted in the art of Norman Rockwell and George Caleb Bingham. These older images have been contested and reshaped later by those who were excluded by them: Du Bois, Baldwin, Jacobs, King, Morrison, Roth and Singer, among many others.

These writers and artists portray the institutions that together comprise the American Public Sphere: hospitals, schools, police and fire departments, museums, parks, libraries, cemeteries, local newspapers, social service organizations and houses of worship. The public sphere is not any one of these institutions. It is the ecosystem formed as these institutions work in harmony with each other.

The Public Sphere is the canvas upon which any community creates itself. It shapes our most important moral commitments. It helps us to understand our history, to define our common purpose, and to meet our collective obligations to each other. The public sphere ensures our security and maintains our readiness to respond in times of crisis.

The Jewish Public Sphere provides the platform for individuals to take their place in the story of the Jewish People.

The mission of Federations, in my view, is thus to sustain the Jewish Public Sphere of North America, one community at a time. Each provides strategic, collaborative leadership, community planning and economic support to maintain this ecosystem for their local Jewish communities. We create capacity to secure the welfare of the most vulnerable. We mobilize our communities in times of need. And we support centers of Jewish learning and spirituality that help individuals find their own place in the story of our people.

Looking back, it was the Jewish public sphere that made possible the relief and rescue work that defined our activities during the 20th Century. It helps us respond to the key challenges that face us today. And it is through the Jewish Public Sphere that we enable communities to pursue a prophetic vision of a decent and just society for all with whom we live.

Taking the public sphere, this ecosystem, as our customer means maintaining strong, collaborative communities, promoting Jewish flourishing on the basis of learning, shared values and practices, and securing the infrastructure to respond to needs as they arise. This requires significant investments of time, wisdom and resources of volunteers and donors who recognize the value of having strong and stable Jewish Public Spheres.

And this is why Federations (like all nonprofits) need to fundraise – not as an end in itself, but to ensure the vibrant Jewish communities that our missions drive us to support.

So let us recognize the importance of donors – not as our customers, but as investors in our mission. A mission of providing visionary, collaborative leadership for a flourishing Jewish Public Sphere that is far more than the sum of its individual institutions. One that collectively helps focus our communities inward to their own core commitments, sideways towards the welfare of others, and upwards, towards something nobler and greater than ourselves.

Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., is President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and a faculty affiliate at the John Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published work on democratic electoral institutions, and the political uses of the Hebrew Bible.