It’s an Abundantly Clear Mission, So Let’s Not Complicate It


With the High Holidays behind us, it is my hope that we can, as a community, commit to tackling the difficult challenges that persist in the local and international Jewish world. As president of our Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish and frustrated by how much more needs to be done.

I travel around the community, and speak to the lay and professional leaders of our partner agencies. Yes, they report some positive changes, but there are definitely problems. At our last Board of Trustees meeting of the year, it was evident that despite our efforts, there is a growing unrest in the community about the lack of funds available for allocation.

While our total revenues have steadily increased over the past three years, we have not been able to effectively meet the needs of the community. Why is this the case? We are all working hard to effect positive results. There is no shortage of possible reasons. Perhaps it is because the needs outpace the dollars we raise. Perhaps it is because of the changing philanthropic environment, where more donors choose to designate/target their giving. Perhaps it is because of flaws in our allocations process. Perhaps it is the economy. Perhaps.

But maybe there is another, perhaps unpopular yet very plausible explanation. Just recently, I came across the charter written in 1901 hanging in the Federation building. As I read this old, parchment document, I couldn't help but be inspired by the vision of our founding fathers. They envisioned the existence of the Federation (then called the Federation of Jewish Charities) for one single purpose — to raise funds for community needs.

Despite the document's length, what struck me was its simplicity and its clarity. Federation was created to be the central fundraising address for the community. I particularly recall my early involvement in the 1970s, when giving to the campaign was paramount and everyone involved in the work of the Federation (lay leaders and staff) was focused on fundraising. We all understood our mission and purpose — to raise funds to help Jews. The allocation process was left to a very small, but very capable group of lay leaders — the Planning and Allocations Committee.

Today, the environment is quite different. The culture of our organization has changed dramatically. More and more of our volunteers choose to focus their work on the very complicated process of allocating funds — so complicated that we don't even understand it ourselves. We spend countless hours, days and even months concerned with slicing the allocation pie, rather than on the actual ingredients that go into "baking of the pie."

I recently tried to ascertain how many of our volunteers are involved in the allocations process. It turns out that there are 160 volunteers on 12 different boards, compared to the 30 that used to serve on the Allocations Committee. The number focused on fundraising itself has dropped from 600 in recent history to about 300 today.

It is a startling fact. We have become an organization consumed with process with very little regard for the true purpose. While allocating funds judiciously and prudently is very critical, we must effectively change our culture and recommit to raising more money. Otherwise, I fear that the often frustrating debate about why so many of the needs in our community remain unfunded will never cease. I fear that we will never be able to fulfill our sacred mandate of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

So I call upon all of us, this new year, to refocus our attention on the vision of our founding fathers and on the purpose of Federation. We all must be mindful of those who depend on us to provide for them. It is time to focus on how we can raise the funds to ensure that the needs of our community are met. Then, we can, with all good faith, disperse it.

Our purpose and our mission must be clear and simple. Let us not complicate it.

Leonard Barrack is the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.


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