Posts Tagged ‘Federation’

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Good Decisions in Bad Times: In Praise of Federation Community Allocations

May 27, 2009

In the words of Thomas Paine (or depending on your musical taste, the Kingston Trio) – these are the days that try men’s souls. With the economy in tatters, jobless numbers swelling, and pocketbooks suffering, charities all over the country are facing decreased campaigns and increased needs.  And of course in the Jewish community, the campaigns of federations have not been immune to this swift and painful downturn. Even those campaigns got an early start before the full onslaught of the economic retreat was felt have suffered substantial drop-off in contributions. In addition, there is the broad impact of Madoff, shrinking endowments and reduced government grants. Yes, these are trying times that can freeze us in the face of the challenges presented. But they are also times where we must nevertheless make decisions on how to confront those challenges. In the federation world, those decisions are often made by community allocations committees.

The good news? Even in bad times, these committees are making good decisions.

Taking my own community as an example, this week the Jewish Federation of Atlanta concluded its allocations process by accepting and approving the thoughtful and balanced recommendation of the local allocations committee. Paradoxically, even in these troubling times, the allocations decisions gave us all something to feel good about. Now make no mistake, nobody felt good about the decreased resources – notwithstanding the heroic efforts of the campaign team it is natural for everyone to wish there was more money to allocate to worthy affiliates and grantees. But what felt good was our collective understanding and appreciation of the way the allocations committee deliberated and decided how community resources should be allocated to meet community needs. The process was thoughtful, inclusive and exhaustive – and even though it resulted in reduced allocations for all, it balanced those reductions with targeted allocations to areas in which need is greatest. Painful decisions perhaps, but smart decisions nevertheless. And the best part? The tough decisions were made not by professionals or hired consultants, but the very members of the community that will be impacted by those decisions.

Now it is popular these days to bemoan how Jewish philanthropy is changing, that the sovereign donor is making more of his/her own choices independent of communal campaigns. In addition, the generosity of individual philanthropists lulls us into a false sense of security that foundations will always meet the targeted needs of the community. But there is an undeniable fact that a community allocations process, run effectively and inclusively like the one in Atlanta, results in broader, more sensitive and more balanced impact than independent decisions by individual donors and foundations. While foundations can be myopic in their focus, federation community allocations decisions must be based on a wide view of community need and consensus.

There is a reason why allocations committees have endured in our communities for so long – because they work.

So now, whereas for many years we have praised foundations at the expense of federations, in these trying times we should be thankful that we have our fellow community members making community decisions. Indeed, in many cases like today in Atlanta, these decisions seem imbued with the wisdom of King Solomon. Balancing local needs with out commitment to Jews overseas, weighing core human services needs with the need to provide education scholarships, maintaining infrastructure while also supporting outcome-focused initiatives – all of these balancing acts can only be genuinely conceived and decided by people who genuinely feel a part of the community they are serving.

Our challenges in these difficult days are great, but not unprecedented. We are reminded that, like now, there once was a time recorded in the Book of Judges (Nevi’im) that there was no king in Israel and everyone did as they pleased. These days we too have no king, and many times it seems like everyone is doing what pleases him or her. Nevertheless, we should not lose sight that in each of our towns and cities we have a kinship of community that demonstrates the wisdom of kings;  wisdom expressed by making community allocations decisions that give us all a reason to be proud – even in times that try our souls.

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The Federation Movement is Dead; Long Live the Federation Movement

April 20, 2009

Perhaps one of the most frequently heard refrains regarding any existing organization, initiative or program is that “if it didn’t exist, we would need to create it.”  It is spoken in boardrooms and parking lots, by professionals and volunteers alike. It is often said in moments of frustration and defense, and rarely in times of admiration. It is a refrain that often is much more true than false, but is often used falsely in the defense of ideas that have grown stale in a tin breadbox of conviction.

We often say this about our local Federations, the Federation system and United Jewish Communities.  We say, with firm conviction, “if they didn’t exist, we would need to create them.”  We say that the current model of Federations may need to change, but that the need for Federations has not changed. We say that if we can only fix what is broken we can preserve what is of value.

But what if we are wrong?

What if our current model of the Federation system is of a nature that is fundamentally past its prime? What if the effort to adapt our Federation system and reengineer United Jewish Communities exhausts us from using those same energies and intellect to create anew?

We must have the strength to come to a fundamental realization about the state of the Federation Movement as embodied by our current Federation system –

it is dead.

But in its death, it presents an opportunity for it to be reborn.

While the basis of its need still exists, we have long ago outgrown the humble origins of the Federation system. The history of its birth, its growth, and its decline is a great chapter in American Jewry. But it is only a chapter… there must be another.

Now there are those reading this essay that will immediately start defensively listing all of the successes and the triumphs of the last century of federated Jewry. Make no mistake, all of those successes and triumphs are due recognition for their displays of strength and appreciation for their magnificent results. There is no question that this Movement has achieved more that we could have imagined…

but we need to imagine more.

We now, at this moment of unparalleled economic challenge, find ourselves looking at a Movement that has shed much of its “move” and is hand wringing too much about what it has “meant.”  It is a Movement that has been transformed into an establishment that has lost its flexibility to adapt to the times in which it exists. Federation infrastructure has remained a tool that is highly responsive during times of crisis, but is adrift when the crisis abates. The Federation system, no matter how innovative and forward thinking some of its leadership is, nevertheless does not present itself as the vanguard of Jewish innovation.

So in retrospect, as the Movement matured, and in its effort to harness wealth and achieve outcomes, it failed to ignite imaginations.  It turned from organizations created by need into organizations maintained by inertia. The Movement no longer was shaped by visionaries like Herb Friedman, but by committees and quorums.  As the Movement matured, (notwithstanding its financial success), what was once communal became further professionalized and what was once dynamic slowly ossified.

And as the Movement matured, it could not help but begin to grow tired from carrying its own legacy on its back. Even in its age, it was resilient  – the Israel Emergency campaigns proved that – but it nevertheless began to die. Our praise turned to platitudes, our exhortations turned to excuses. And like a modern day Council of the Four Lands, our Movement became more of a spectacle than a success, a gathering of individuals rather than a gathering of ideas.  In the face of ever surmounting challenges, it became a Movement much more focused on reengineering than reimagining.

So now, with Federation after Federation retrenching, reformulating and reducing, the Movement is gasping its last breaths – smothered by a system gasping for air and dollars. Community institutions of philanthropic engagement are morphing into professional centers of philanthropic management.  They have taken the 80/20 rule to its logical and most dangerous extreme and, as a result, engineered the narrowing, not the expansion of the Federation Movement. In many ways, the Federation Movement as we once knew it is dead.

So now we must face the question squarely – if it doesn’t exist, do we need to create it anew?

I think the answer is yes.  And the time to do it is now.