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On Eve Of GA, Time For Federations To Wake Up
Mon, 11/05/2012 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Andres Spokoiny
Andres Spokoiny

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of the most influential books in the history of science, Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” In addition to describing how new ideas overtake the old, the work also coined the term “paradigm shift,” which, to Kuhn’s dismay, became a sort of over-encompassing management buzzword.

But despite its overwhelming relevance, Kuhn’s lesson hasn’t been fully internalized, and the world of Jewish communal organizations is no exception.

According to Kuhn, scientists cling to ideas long after they should reasonably have discarded them: old paradigms resist dying. When scientists start to see “anomalies” in their models, they generally ignore or dismiss them. Even when an anomaly can’t be ignored, they find ways to explain them away in a fashion that ultimately keeps the old paradigm intact.

Over time, the “anomalies” pile up. Better measurements make evident more errors in the calculations. And scientists added more epicycles. Finally, Copernicus unveiled the truth: the geocentric paradigm itself was wrong.

Looking at the federation system on the eve of its major annual convention, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, taking place in Baltimore this week, it’s obvious that anomalies are piling up. Even when some fundraising campaigns are nominally up, they don’t keep pace with inflation. The system has been hemorrhaging donors for 20 years. In an attempt to keep fundraising up, they’ve focused more and more on the high-end contributors who’ll keep the campaigns afloat, but in the process have alienated smaller and younger donors.

Federations are no longer the “central addresses.” Donors make their philanthropic decisions on their own. Only a fraction of Jewish philanthropic assets are in federation’s control. Even in overseas giving, their funding is becoming smaller, both in absolute and in relative terms. All the while, overseas organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee and Jewish Agency for Israel raise more money directly, and over 600 “friends of” organizations channel money to Israel outside of the federation system. Even in communities known for their iron discipline, relations between federation and its agencies are showing stress.

To be sure, the anomalies plaguing the federation system can’t be blamed solely on them. Federations have made heroic efforts to remain strong in the face of a zeitgeist that doesn’t favor central organizations. The weakening of the collective, the empowering of the individual, the fragmentation of the society and the community, and even the technological changes threaten the classic federation model.

But ultimately, federations are struggling to make a 20th-century model relevant to the 21st century. Is a model designed to face the challenges of last century still relevant to the ones we face today? How can a system fulfill its mission when it was created by and for people that had a different concept of the community?

When the “occupy” movement grew, I secretly hoped that young Jews would “occupy federation,” as some did in the last 1960s. It would have created conflict, but at least it would have shown that they cared; that federation occupied an important place in their consciousness and in their understanding of the community. It would have been painful, but it was more painful that they didn’t even bother.

And yet, having lived with the federation system from the inside, and interacting with it for many years, I resist joining the choir of federation bashers. I believe that the promise of federations, as an expression of Jewish communal solidarity, is vital for the Jewish community, and probably for North American society as a whole. And I don’t think that federation and independent philanthropy are at odds: they serve different goals and they complement each other.

As funders, we care for a discrete number of issues. Federation’s role is to care for the totality; to be broad-based and to provide a global safety net. Funders need to pick an issue, a problem they want to solve, and move the needle on that issue. Federation’s mission is different. The basic idea of the campaign is, and will be, relevant, as it rests on the core Jewish value of “all Jews are responsible for one another.”

So even though I represent a network of independent funders, I have a stake, both personal and organizational, in the ultimate success of the federation system. But for that to happen, real change is needed — not more epicycles. Those in the system that strive for change should be strengthened and encouraged. There are incredibly talented and visionary folks in the system, both lay and professional. As independent funders, we need to be there, pushing them to see the anomalies and reject epicycles. We need to give them permission and backing to try new things, and — if they fail — to try again.

A new fundraising technique, a new buzzword, a new empty slogan, a new capital campaign — they’re all just epicycles. At best, they’ll just buy the system a few more years of decline. As with the geocentric paradigm, better technologies are helping render the old paradigm irrelevant. Even when federations embrace technology, they rarely embrace the values and social patterns that the new technologies represent. The federations’ ways rarely reflect the complexity and unpredictability of our community systems. They fall short of representing the incredible variety and plurality of Jewish identity today.

The federations need to analyze the essence of their paradigms and move from “command and control” to “connect and cooperate;” from “talking to” to “talking with”; from “central address” to “network builder”; from “owning” to “sharing”; from “territories” to “constellations”; from “allocating” to “partnering.”

They need to embrace radical risk-taking. They need nimbleness and flexibility, and they need to provide a venue for meaningful community conversations. They need to break the short-term tyranny of “the bottom line” in the annual campaign and begin to work in long-term, multi-pronged engagement strategies. Federations can and should be the vehicle for donors to realize some of their visions.

My point is to encourage those lay and professional leaders planning to attend the GA this week to help break the epicycles. Every time a new fundraising gimmick is suggested, another superficial change is proposed, or somebody speaks about arbitrary formulas for overseas allocation, the epicycle alarm should be heard. The system needs to engage in a serious conversation about its basic assumptions, about the essence of the model.

It is said that for Copernicus to come up with the “heliocentric” theory, he should have been standing on the sun.

Some of the folks in the federation system — new executives and some old, visionary lay leaders, at both the local and national level — are fighting for true change. They are up against inertia and skepticism. They are standing on the sun, and it’s up to us not to let them burn.

Andres Spokoiny, a former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Montreal, is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.

Jewish Federations of North America

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Music to my ears. I work for a Jewish communal organization, and the amount of resources being sucked up to keep obsolete and outdated systems alive is painful. Things could be streamlined and made so much more efficient, and resources could be used so much more effectively---and so much of what could help seems so clear, and yet no one would ever consider doing it. I truly hope that high-ranking members of the leadership take your comments very seriously.


Many lay leaders and professionals who are or were part of the Federation world are looking at what is happening today with very great sadness.

In the ‘good ole days’ (were they really that good?) the Federation was the key player in all, if not most, communities. In the ‘good ole days’ the Federations attracted the top leaders, the most significant donors, and the most creative and visionary professionals. In the ‘good ole days’ the Federations were looked to for guidance and support by the entire Jewish Community.

From what I read, see and hear, with very few exceptions, this is certainly not the case today.

Most major leaders and donors have decided that institutional life is not for them.

They have set up their own Foundations, decided upon their own priorities, formed their own umbrella support system and have hired top staff.

So – as many of my friends have said: ‘Yes, we all know the problem – so what is the answer?”

I may not have THE answer, but I do have a vision.

But first, as the song says, let’s start at the very beginning.

I may be wrong, but I think that the most significant event that began the slide down the slippery slope was…. Project Renewal!

Yup – that great and most effective program began the downfall of the Federation world.

In the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s, the major communal organizations were the Federations and their support organizations, the UJA and CJF. They attracted the major donors, leaders and professionals. That world was where all the action happened. It was the place to be.

Outside of the Synagogue world, and as a somewhat educated guess, probably 80%++ of all Jewish giving came through the Federation world. The Israel Education Fund was a quiet way that major gifts could be given through the Federation, not be allocated through the general campaign process, and be designated for special projects in Israel.

With that exception most all other charitable giving and allocation was controlled by the Federation.

In the late 1970’s Project Renewal was proposed by the Jewish Agency and accepted by the Federation world. Many voiced reservations; not because the goal was not a wonderful one, but because they felt that once donors had the ability to so specifically designate their gifts (even with the parameters being agreed upon) doors would be opened that could never be closed.

There is a story about an incident that took place in the mid-70′s during the discussion most Federations had about supporting Soviet Jewish Refuseniks who came to America (versus only funding those who went to Israel). A major Federation donor and board member, who felt strongly that all Soviet Jews should go to Israel and if they came to America should not be supported, seeing that he was in the very small minority, made the following statement: “I know that in a traditional democracy my position will be defeated, but let me redefine democracy for you: traditional democracy believes that one person has one vote; in my democracy, one dollar equals one vote.” Since his gift was more than all the rest of the Board members collectively, he felt that his position should prevail. Of course it didn’t as it should not have. But the lesson was there – he did not want others to decide how to allocate his contribution!

Whether right or wrong, whether good for the community or bad, the fact is that most people, and certainly most – if not all – major donors do not want others to allocate their contributions and certainly do not want to spend time in organizational life.

We are now thirty years later. The desire and ability to have more control over ones own gift and what Project Renewal began has resulted in the unbelievable growth and strength of dozens (if not hundreds) of niche organizations, hundreds (!) of significant family foundations and the significant weakening of the Federation world.

So – since we all know the problem, what is the solution?

My vision – or at least the beginning of a concept: We need a totally new communal structure.

The Federation should no longer raise funds to directly allocate to other institutions, agencies or programs.

Thus it will not be seen as a competitor.

This is the key.

Once the Federation is no longer an advocate for any specific organization, agency or program, it can become the ‘honest-broker’ for the donors and agencies and the effective organization the community needs.

• The Federation should be the communal organization whose responsibility it is to:

o Serve as a resource for all organizations in the areas of fundraising, leadership, staff development and management.

o Serve as a resource for all donors and provide ‘fair and balanced’ (sorry FNC) information about all programs and projects needing funding.

o Serve as the place where all organizational leaders meet to discuss the issues – not necessarily to force a consensus but to allow for open discussion in a neutral environment.

o Serve as a true ‘community relations committee/council’ in developing relationships between the Jewish and non-Jewish community and even within the Jewish community.

o Serve as the community-wide outreach organization to motivate those not involved to become involved and assist them in developing their own paths.

o Convene the community in times of crises or special need. Play the major role in the development and coordination of community action, programs, and responses.

• Federation leadership should include the top local leadership (lay and pro) of all communal organizations and, as importantly, the top donors (who may be much more willing to serve in this new institution than in what we now currently have).

• Funding for this ‘new’ Federation will have to come from the cadre of communal donors who, if they buy in to the new concept, will see this new structure as a benefit to all, not as a waste of time and money.

• This vision does not see the need for the JFNA since the JAFI and the JDC will, as all other organizations, raise funds directly in the community. This vision does see the necessity for an organization much the same as the CJF was – a national umbrella resource for all communities.

This is drastic surgery for the community. However, without it, or something close to it, we will continue to see the diminution of the one community organization/structure that is so needed.