In 2008 our Federation will turn 107 years old, making us one of the oldest charities in the Greater Philadelphia area. More than one century ago some of our community's most distinguished and respected leaders articulated their great vision of a central philanthropic address which would allow the nine original Jewish social service agencies to focus on service delivery. Then and now, we embraced that vision-raising funds to deal with our community's most critical needs and priorities.
And I must say that for over 85 years we have done just that –successfully addressed emerging critical needs not only in our local community but in Israel and overseas. We have taken care of our community members through the great depression, fed and clothed countless individuals and families in our community and globally, absorbed thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, airlifted thousands out of danger and into Israel and supported the Jewish State through numerous wars. We've achieved a great deal — too many milestones to mention.
However, during the past 20 years, our community's demographic, socio-economic and geographic composition has changed. We've become more dispersed, more secular and less engaged as a community. In an effort to retain its centrality, Federation began to fund more community programs to respond to this trend and got into the business of service delivery.
Unfortunately, the exact opposite scenario took place. Federation's focus became more diffused, making it extremely difficult to articulate its mission and vision. The dollars we raised were spread over hundreds of programs and we substantially decreased our ability to make a significant impact on any of them. We were losing our ability to retain and attract major community philanthropists and our leadership ranks were becoming depleted. This situation was made even worse by increased competition from other community philanthropic institutions such as art museums, universities and hospitals. These worthy organizations were only too happy to offer those in our community with affluence and influence tangible projects providing high visibility and a higher return on their philanthropic investments.
Quite frankly, Federation had lost its caché and its relevance in the community. And, quite honestly that's why I, and numerous others, left Federation until quite recently. We didn't leave because we stopped caring about our community. We left because we lost confidence and trust in Federation's ability to operate efficiently and effectively.
The Road to Recovery
Over the past six years, Federation has attempted to transform itself several times as a result of new strategic plans. However, these changes were cosmetic in nature and did not produce any significant improvements. I believe that one of the chief reasons for this was a lack of clear implementation tactics and leadership support.
When Ira Schwartz joined Federation as president in July 2006, he approached me and asked me to consider becoming Federation's next chairman. My answer was "maybe." Because of my association with Ira at Temple University and my respect for his ability to transform organizations, I was willing to listen. But I was skeptical at best and made my feelings known. I wanted to wait and see if the new wave of changes that he set in motion would achieve tangible and relevant results. I wanted to make certain that Federation would be able to "talk the talk and walk the walk." I wanted to be convinced that Federation could become a donor centric, highly focused and highly accountable organization. I wanted confirmation that I will have an opportunity to lead an organization that is ready and poised to accept the challenges and deliver impact.
Back to the Future
I'm back and I'm convinced that we're ready to move. I see an organization that is beginning to attract significant leadership. And I see an organization that is prepared to operate as a business — living within its means and building a solid business foundation.
There are no more excuses. The time is now. There is nothing to stop us from achieving what our community so desperately needs.
And so, while I am optimistic and happy about the renewed excitement, which is so very palpable throughout the community, I am at the same time concerned and worried that we will meet the critical needs of our poor and elderly. It is clear that Federation must play a leadership role in documenting and communicating the extent of the needs, as well as developing the data needed to make more informed and strategic decisions in the future. Significant changes must be made to transform this community, to meet serious and immediate issues. I am not being dramatic when I say that our community is in crisis.
I'm disheartened when I see our seniors — those who have helped to build this community — living in poverty, hunger and neglect. Elderly men and women — our parents and grandparents — are isolated and alone. How could this happen?
There are 12,000 low-income Jewish households in our community who face food insecurity — limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate food on a daily basis. It has also been estimated that 30 percent of individuals showing up at Federation's Mitzvah Food Pantries are children accompanied by their parent or parents. It is simply unforgivable and totally unacceptable that our children — yes, our children, go hungry on a daily basis.
Currently, over 21,000 Jews in Philadelphia are 75 years of age or older. Sadly, a relatively large number of these individuals are barely able to make ends meet or are impoverished. The amount and array of available services to meet the current and growing demands of our elderly population is woefully inadequate. The needs of our elderly are approaching a crisis state. And based on current demographic trends, it's only going to continue to grow and get worse. Unless we act now!
It is unimaginable and unconscionable that a community of such significant wealth has members who live in such deplorable conditions. Many believe that the state of a community is reflective of its members and its leadership. Is this something we want to be known for? I think not.
Very shortly, the President's Task Force — a group of community civic and business leaders assembled to take a hard look at our community's most critical needs — will issue its recommendations. They will outline the current senior climate and suggest ways to improve it. The Task Force will also present recommendations on Jewish Day School education, a community priority near and dear to my heart! Unfortunately, we have allowed Philadelphia to have the lowest rate of day school enrollment of any major city in the United States.
More alarming is the fact that the numbers continue to decline — 2,000 students in 2001-02 school year and 1,770 in 2006-07. These statistics are largely attributable to high tuition costs, which put Jewish day schools beyond the reach of most middle-class families. A recent Federation Jewish day school education task force estimated that we could easily double current day school enrollment if viable and sustainable tuition assistance was made available. Jewish day school facilities have become obsolete and are not competitive with those in private sector.
Getting Down to Business
As Federation prepares for its 107th anniversary, I am profoundly optimistic that the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community that we serve will grow stronger and become more inclusive and more supportive. Our community can be self-sustaining.
Federation's financial health, and the health of the community, depends largely on its ability to execute three of the most widely accepted business growth practices — donor retention, re-acquisition and acquisition. Those donors who continue to support the Federation and its community priorities need to be acknowledged and appreciated; we must articulate our achievements (impact) in a clear and concise way — they need to feel a significant part of this impact. This ongoing engagement is critical to our long-term strategies.
Those donors who chose to stay away from Federation need to be re-engaged. Some of the perceptions of Federation that led to their departure need to be addressed. But many of those concerns and perceptions are past history and are no longer relevant. Our message needs to be tailor-made to these individual and families — the new and improved Federation brand awareness is critical to achieve re-engagement.
That said, Federation must do a better job in reversing the shrinkage of the base of contributors. As the Greater Philadelphia area continues to age, a large number of donors stop supporting the community because of age, financial circumstances and geographic out-migration (Florida, Arizona, etc.). A significant financial investment needs to be made into cost-effective donor acquisition programs.
Let the past be the past. From this day forward, let us work together to reverse the decline and embrace a new and exciting vision that secures a bright future for our community, our children, our elderly and our at-risk populations.
Let us make the greater Philadelphia Jewish Community a model of excellence for the entire nation to emulate! We must do better and we can.