Archive for June, 2009

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Jewish Communal CEO Salaries: Did the Forward’s Coverage Take a Step Backwards?

June 23, 2009

During these days when we are seeing how social media is fueling a Persian revolution in the Middle East, we can quickly forget that not too long ago Jews used the original form of social media, the newspaper press, to help revolutionize the quality of life of trade workers in the lower east side of New York.  The Jewish Daily Forward, originally a Yiddish only newspaper and the ‘conscience of the ghetto’ was (and still is) an important voice of Jewish America. It has maintained a vigorously independent and socially responsible voice of the Jewish press for over one hundred years. It’s reporting has constantly and consistently challenged its readers to look back at a reflection of the Jewish challenges of the time, while encouraging a forward-looking approach to solving those challenges.

Which is why the Forwards recent reporting on the compensation of executives of major Jewish organizations is so dismaying. Its coverage raises numerous questions regarding the balance of the its reporting on the issue, and by raising those questions may actually have resulting in an unintended step backwards rather than its typical forward progress.

For those who have not read the article and editorial, in summary it was a report focusing on how several executives of major Jewish organizations did not take a pay cut or pay freeze notwithstanding the layoffs of numerous employees in their respective organizations.   Accompanying the news article, the Forward editorial board wrote “[t]his is not the time to withhold support out of anger or disgust; the needs today are too urgent. Instead, it’s the time to demand accountability from Jewish organizations and their governing boards.”

Now to be clear, I too believe that there is a need for shared sacrifice, and I think that the questions about executive compensation at Jewish organizations merit serious questions and conversations about accountability. I also believe that these questions cannot be ignored.  However, the reporting of news (as opposed to editorializing) about compensation practices at charitable organizations needs to be thoughtful regarding the context of the facts reported.  Each of the Jewish organizations mentioned in the Forward article are large sophisticated organizations with substantially sophisticated professional and volunteer leadership and it is hard to imagine that each of those organizations didn’t consider the issue of executive compensation thoughtfully.  We may not all like the answers, but we should not (as the Forward article seems to) assume some of the questions were not asked. We may demenad accountability, but does the Forward survey really demonstrate a lack of accountability?  Or did it identify a lack of sensitivity? There is a difference, and thoughtful journalism should distinguish between the two – even when editorializing.

However, even if one takes issue with the Forward’s line of reasoning, there is no question that a role of an independent press is to ask the questions the Forward asked, as well as opine as to its own independent analysis on the answers to those questions.  But in my mind, this recent reporting also raises some important questions to be asked of the Forward, and questions it should be asking itself.

1.    Was the story fully reported in a manner that gave complete context to its subject? The Forward focused on only select data (number of employees, total compensation, and personal compensation reduction).  Are there other factors that should have been included in the sampled data that would have given a more complete picture of the fact patter the Forward was reporting?  For example, are those individual executives subject to performance for pay evaluations?  What impact does the decrease in staff have on the increase in executive responsibility? What was the fundraising performance of the respective organizations and what percentages of contributions of those respective organizations are solicited specifically by the chief executive/executive director?  I’m not sure exactly what all of the relative data points are, but it seems like the Forward picked the smallest data set to make the most inflammatory statement.

2.    Was the news report sufficiently neutral when compared to the subjective comments in the editorial analysis? Rereading the article, one is struck by the first paragraph with its tragic/poetic description of waves of crimson lapping below the suites of chief executives. Far from a basic factual framing of the context of the article, that language  establishes the critical tone of the entire reporting effort.  While the reporting does provide a balance of perspectives, one can’t help but find the rhythm and the layout of the story to have a prejudicial orientation. I am not a journalism expert, but it did raise the question in my mind of whether what should have been an objective price of reporting tilted more towards a purposeful lead-in to a subjective editorial.

3.    Did the Forward live up to its own expectations of open disclosure? While highlighting the lack of responsiveness from some executives, it is hard not to wonder if the Forward’s own self-disclosure was sufficient.  A close read of its self- disclosure reads that its executives took a 10% paycut of compensation in excess of $80,000. If the publisher took that cut, based on the Forward’s information, it means the publisher took a approximately a $13,000 pay cut against an approximate $211,000 salary, a little over a 6% paycut.  That 6% is less than the 10% cuts taken by several community executives identified in the article.  My point is not to judge the pay cut, but rather to query whether even the Forward, by making readers do the math, was as forthcoming as it expected its respondents to be. In an article regarding accountability, transparency and leadership, did the Forward sufficiently walk its own talk?

4.   In responding to the factual reporting, did the Forward’s editorial outweigh its criticism over constructive suggestions about CEO compensation practices? The editorial commentary made some valid observations about the need for key executives of non-profits to be responsible regarding compensation in challenging times.  But rather than propose measures to help reinforce that responsibility, the editorial board missed an opportunity to be constructive, as opposed to just being critical. Interestingly, it punctuated its editorial with a reminder of its offer to create a public conversation between community members and community leaders – an important offer indeed. But while wondering why more leaders haven’t taken it up on the offer, did it consider whether it has adequately created an appearance that the conversation would be balanced and unbiased? And did this editorial help or hinder that appearance?

5.    Lastly, how did the Forward balance its Jewish responsibilities regarding the use of speech in the public forum with its reporting on an issue of community tzedakah? Again, I am not a journalism expert, nor an expert on Lashon Hara.  However, it strikes me that when the Forward makes statements that it knows may result in consequences that are damaging (to individuals, to organizations and to communities of need) then it is fair to ask the question of how the Forward balanced its Jewish responsibilities regarding proper speech.  The editorial is quick to argue that the CEO compensation is not enough of a reason for individuals to withhold their support of otherwise worthy charities, but a review of the reader comments suggests that some felt otherwise after reading the story and editorial. What is the Forward’s responsibility in this regard? Is its editorializing of the topic possibly Rechilut, in that it may incite ill feelings regarding otherwise noble charitable causes? These are questions that I would hope the Forward considered, especially given that the financial impact of its use of language may be very real.

To be clear, the Forward (and other Jewish news outlets, including even blogs) serve an important role, and shine an important light on community affairs, even when what we see in that light makes us uncomfortable. But that role is a powerful one that comes with great responsibility. As readers, we too have a responsibility – to ask the questions that challenge our news sources to serve their role in a fair and excellent manner.

Indeed, when we all ask the hard questions, even about those charged with the responsibility of asking hard questions, then we only move in one direction –

forward.

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Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow: Key Questions on Jewish Innovation, Interruption, and Sustainability

June 14, 2009

In preparing for a recent flight to New York for some meetings that included discussions regarding the state of Jewish social innovation, I compiled a stack of recent ‘want to read, but haven’t yet read’ materials on the topic. But much like the rest of life, my best-laid plans were interrupted when I stopped at a newsstand in the airport to pick up the day’s newspaper. There on the shelf was a BusinessWeek headline too hard to ignore: “Innovation, Interrupted: How America’s failure to capitalize on innovation hurt the economy – and what happens next.”

How’s that for serendipity?

So rather than methodically review the stack I compiled, I boarded the plane and dove right into the BusinessWeek article with fascination.  It raises some key observations and questions regarding the last decade of commercial innovation and how the slowdown (or an evening out) of the nation’s innovation curve may have contributed to the current economic environment.  Focusing on the technology and biotech sectors, the article raises the question of whether innovative development really slowed down at all, or whether the barriers to the commercialization of those developments were the true culprits of stymieing innovation.  Certainly these are questions that are equally applicable to social entrepreneurs as well as those in the for-profit sectors.

The second article was the recent white paper titled The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape. The paper, based on the 2008 Survey of New Jewish Organizations, undertaken by Jumpstart, The Natan Fund and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, raises several key findings and recommendations, several of which are precise observations that require much deeper consideration.  In reviewing a landscape of over 300 Jewish start-ups then in operation, the paper provides some compelling statistical information supporting a belief that the Jewish innovation is on a growth curve that reflects the underlying changes in 21st century Jewish life and that leverages developing social media and communications technologies.

Finishing the Jumpstart paper, I couldn’t help but think back to the BusinessWeek article I just read and wondered – Jewish innovation is important and seemingly fast-growing, but how do we ensure that this very important Jewish innovation isn’t interrupted?

Certainly we need to make sure that the question of sustainability is considered and anticipated thoughtfully, and not just by those who are active participants in the innovation ecosystem (or what I have previously referred to as the Zera’im movement).  But even more importantly, we need to make sure that the discussion is substantially outweighed by action. Action in developing Jewish innovators, developing models of financial sustainability, encouraging innovation in underrepresented areas of need (i.e. the Jumpstart survey finds that only 2.9% of Jewish start-ups self-identified as primarily social service organizations; a very small percentage given the size of the need), and reducing barriers for success.

Action should trump discussion, for sure. However, for the action to be meaningful, there needs to be some consideration of key questions raised (in my mind at least) by both by the BusinessWeek article and the Jumpstart paper. I don’t have answers to these questions (and I certainly welcome input from those that do), but I list them below as helpful suggestions for you to talk amongst yourselves. They fall into the categories of What, Who, Where, Why and How?

1.     What? First, we need to ask the tricky question of whether we are investing in true innovation that can have a sustainable impact on Jewish life, or are we investing in very niche areas of Jewish interest that are fashionable but not forward-thinking? Is there a difference?  How we answer these questions may very well determine how well we can develop even greater amounts of investment in Jewish innovation in the coming years.

2.     Who? The Jumpstart paper focuses on the ratio that many innovative efforts are independent entities (80%) as opposed to independently operating subsidiaries of larger organizations (20%).  But the question remains, by motivating innovation outside of established organizations, are we dooming those established organizations to an innovation deficit?  Rather than creating an accretive aspect of Jewish communal life, are we inadvertently creating an abscess that may actually damage it?  How can we balance the locus of innovation so that we get maximum benefit with minimum harm?

3.    Where? Are our existing community-based funding organizations  (as opposed to national foundations) sufficiently focused on funding regional and micro-regional Jewish innovation? The Jumpstart survey reinforces the belief that Jewish innovation  (on a percentage basis of surveyed organizations) is greatest in New York and California (57% of surveyed organizations are located in those two states).  Certainly those states have some of the largest population centers, but how do we create a broader national environment of Jewish innovation in places like St. Louis? Charlotte? Houston?

4.     Why? If so few organizations in the innovation ecosystem are focused on human services, how will we balance the legacy needs of existing infrastructure that primarily focus on servicing those needs; especially when those needs will be rapidly escalating as the baby boom generation shifts into an age where they may more frequently need those services?

5.    How? Assuming we believe that greater investment in Jewish innovation is essential to continuing the maintenance of a strong Jewish community, how do we inspire entrepreneurs to innovate in areas of greatest need?  Is that a fair question?  And if we succeed in motivating a shift of substantial regional and micro-regional investment in innovation (i.e. Federations invest more in innovative initiatives and start-ups as opposed to legacy areas of funding) what are the metrics by which we measure the impact of innovation against the cost? Is it the number of entities? Web-clicks? Participants? Or are there more general longitudinal metrics we need to identify and begin to measure?

As the BusinessWeek article suggests, experiencing a few years of innovation does not necessarily forestall great crisis.  We may all be quick to praise the current state of Jewish innovation (and rightfully so), but not without critically assessing what comes next. Also, pointing to characteristics of previous eras of commercial innovation, the BusinessWeek article notes that “no industrial revolution in the past has been based on a single technology” and points to the combination of railroads, electricity, telephone and telegraph as the fuel of the Industrial Revolution, and the confluence of several technologies in the era of innovation that seemed so dramatic in the 1990s.  Accordingly, innovation in one particular area of Jewish life may not be enough, we may need innovation in lots of areas, including inside existing centers of Jewish life. Otherwise, we may find that our innovation is interrupted and – for a people concerned with its survival –  we need innovation that is sustainable.

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A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (In Praise of Officer Stephen T. Johns)

June 10, 2009

One of the things that I enjoy most about being a volunteer in the non-profit world is how often I am amazed at the seemingly limitless capacity for individuals to love another individual, a cause, a nation, and even an entire people.  These compassionate and caring individuals, whether they are professionals, volunteers, donors, or even occasional consumers, constantly remind me that love is a powerful source of charity and that the ways that love manifests itself is near limitless.  On one side of a line, love is what drives imagination and invigoration, in Jewish life and in life in general.  Love is, in essence, what drives so many of us do so many amazingly good things.

But there is another side of that line, and on Wednesday, June 10, 2009 events in Washington D.C. reminded all of us that on the other side of the line from love is pure, unadulterated hate.

Unfortunately, just as love is a powerful motivator, so is hate.  The Shoah was a manifestation of hate, an expression of humankind’s capacity for destruction in the name of hate. So often when we speak of the Holocaust we mention the ‘banality of evil’ – how such a monumental expression of hatred was exercised in the most mundane of actions.  But we can’t forget that the hatred embodied in the Holocaust, while not novel, was anything but banal when we consider it in the context of the senseless death of six million Jews and millions of others. There is no way to memorialize that kind of hate; instead we strive to create memorials to the goodness that such hate extinguished.

And one place that jointly houses the recollection of devastating hatred and the remembrance lost goodness is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where once again good encountered evil, love encountered hate. When James Von Brunn opened fire at guards protecting a space housing the memory of devastating hate, he created new, all-to-painful memories that hate has not yet abated.  Just as Jews have endured the consequences of hate since the Holocaust, hatred of Jews has endured since then as well.

James Von Brunn reminded us that there is a thin line between love and hate, and that the line has not faded one bit.  It is a line that has not dimmed with the passage of time or the relocation of place.  Just as that line was once drawn between the 22 year-old SS soldiers who operated gas chambers and the 70 year-old righteous gentiles who hid and saved Jewish souls from those very camps, another line has now been drawn between an 88 year-old murderous anti-Semite and a 39 year-old security guard who served in his own way as a righteous protector of a place of memory for six million Jews.

Officer Stephen T. Johns served as a bulwark on that thin line between love and hate.  In a place built to memorialize how at one time hate bled over the line to decimate a people of love, yet again there was blood spilled on that line; blood of a defender of memory and an obstacle to hate.

So once again, all of us who embrace the desire to do acts of loving-kindness are reminded that while we live so fully on one side of the line, there is another side of the line as well. A side that is holds back more than just despair and ignorance, more than just fear and loathing. It is a side of mankind that is dark and it is evil.

Yes, there is a thin line between love and hate. Stephen T. Johns lived and died defending the better side of that line. His death leaves one less defender on that line, one less defender of boundless love against the ferocity of unrestricted hate. We need a lot more Stephen Johns on that line – including every single one of us.

Then, perhaps, the line won’t be so thin after all.

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The Middle East Clock: Eleven Minutes Past and Present

June 6, 2009

The history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, like the history of other peoples and nations, is comprised of events and eras, moments and memories. And even though it is counted in lunar years, Israeli and Jewish time exists in the same world of minutes and hours that the rest of the world operates. While the names of months may differ, the day’s events are catalogued in the same twenty-four hour increments.

But for Jews and Israelis, time is not only a continuum of history; it is a chronology of survival. Their history, though filled with experiences of hardships and the implications of evil, is nevertheless a timeline that marks a people’s irrepressible desire to create and survive. This survival instinct was shared by generations of Jewish leaders who endured through history, only to – as Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Los Angeles describes it – “reenter history” upon the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. A reentry into history that may have been short-lived had President Harry Truman not recognized the nascent state a mere eleven minutes after it was declared by David Ben Gurion.

Eleven minutes – a brief moment in the history of the world, a pivotal window of time in the survival of the Jewish people.

And now sixty-one years later, it is hard not to feel that the Jewish people are once again in a time where minutes matter. With that in mind, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington D.C. was both a timely visit and a visit about being timely.  Notwithstanding the various perspectives of the politicians and pragmatists, there is an overwhelming unanimity on one matter – the clock is ticking and nobody wants it to get to midnight. The threat of a nuclear Iran, and the instability that it would further foment in the Middle East, are the most substantial existential threats to Israel have has existed since those first fateful minutes in 1948. But the similarities do not stop there.

Once again the United States is in a position where its actions, and the timing of those actions, are critical to the future of the Jewish state. In a world where the deligitimization of Israel has become far too common and where the gathering threats have become even more foreboding, Israel is once again looking to its first and oldest ally to recognize the meaning of minutes. The difference is that in 1948 it was the act of creation of the State of Israel that precipitated action by the United States, now there is a risk that inaction by the United States might allow the threat of an act of destruction of Israel to become unbearably real. Eleven minutes mattered then, eleven minutes matters now.

Like 1948, policymakers in Washington are debating matters relating to the existence of a Jewish state. In 1948, there was substantial turmoil in the Truman White House just days before the declaration of the state of Israel, with George Marshall and Clark Clifford locked in a debate that had great bearing on the future of the Jewish people. Now, in 2009, another great debate is occurring in a different White House as to the manner and timeline in which the Iranian challenge to the United States and Israel will be dealt with. This debate is not just in the White House, but in the halls of Congress as well. And like 1948, there are those who see the threatening clouds in the Middle East as one that requires restraint rather than action. There are the modern-day Marshalls and Cliffords and their debate is no less significant to the fate of Israel as they were then.  Even with the passage of those sixty-one years, we once again find the world in another window of time that feels like it is matter of minutes until the future of Israel is secured or destroyed. With a hateful leader of a resourceful nation racing to build a nuclear weapon that could hasten his desire to see Israel erased from the map of nations and vanished from the annals of history, once again the United States is at a moment where its pronouncements matter, where its intentions are being closely observed.

A few weeks prior to those fateful eleven minutes in May, 1948, Dr. Chaim Weizmann sent President Truman a letter that stated in part: “The choice for our people, Mr. President, is between statehood and extermination. History and providence have placed this issue in your hands, and I am confident that you will yet decide it in the spirit of moral law.” Now, as Israel finds herself in another time where minutes matter, where the choice for Israel is between statehood and extermination, her supporters in Washington D.C. and capitals across the world must once again stand in the face of history and providence and make decisions in the spirit of moral law. Will the United States and its fellow members of the community of nations let this people who have reentered history face the threat of its nation being banished from history again?

We may only have eleven minutes to find out.