This year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America focused on the dual challenges of declining affiliations and bottom lines.
With a tagline of “Think Forward,” this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America focused on new strategies financial and otherwise to face the dual challenges of declining affiliations and bottom lines.
In an introspective moment, Leslie Wexner, chairman and CEO of L Brands, selected to speak about cultivating Jewish leadership, summed up the feelings of many of the federation professionals present.
“We have a self-imposed diaspora,” Wexner told the 3,000 attendees at Monday morning’s plenary session at the Washington Hilton Hotel. “We’re not talking to each other. We’re not communicating effectively.”
That introspection ran through the plenary and breakout sessions.
Rabbi Mike Uram, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, spoke from the main stage on Monday, sharing words of wisdom from the Book of Kings.
“The text tells us that the Lord passed by in a great and mighty wind. The mountain was split by the power of the wind, but the Lord was not in the wind,” said Uram. Nor was the Lord in the earthquake, or in the fire.
In a few short phrases, Uram related, the perception of God is changed.
“God is no longer to be found in all those external supernatural pyrotechnics, instead, just like us, God has been on a journey,” said Uram, one of 80 people comprising the Philadelphia contingent at the G.A. God appears to the Prophet Elijah as a small, still voice, closer to what is thought of as personal God.
“If our tradition has the capacity to imagine a loud and fiery God on Mount Sinai and a still, quiet voice inside Elijah, what else can our tradition imagine?” said Uram. He mused that the “still, small voice inside of us” inspires the community “to do more, to be better, to make our lives a story filled with meaning and purpose.”
Dan Pallotta, founder and president of the Charity Defense Council, turned the fundraising conversation on its head, asking the audience, “What if everything we’ve been taught about charity and giving is wrong?” Billed as a philanthropic pioneer, Pallotta’s TED Talk-style address served as a challenge to the Jewish community to rethink how it thinks of charitable giving.
The question so many donors ask — “What percentage of my donation goes to the cause versus the overhead?” — is inherently problematic, said Pallotta. Overhead should be thought of as part of the cause, not as a negative. In fact, overhead is necessary for organizations to really grow, in other words, “we should be investing more money, not less in fundraising because fundraising is the one thing that has the potential to multiply the amount of money available” for causes Jewish federations care about.
Pallotta spelled it out using an example from his own background with Breast Cancer 3-Days. The initial investment was $350,000 of risk capital. In five years, he said, that multiplied into $194 million, after expenses, for breast cancer research.
“Now, if you were a philanthropist really interested in breast cancer, what would make more sense — go out and find the most innovative researcher in the world and give her $350,000 for research or give her fundraising department $350,000 to multiply it into $194 million for breast cancer research?”
By the sound of the thunderous applause, the G.A. audience agreed with his assessment. Fundraising, a recurrent theme at G.A.s, was the topic of conversation in a number of breakout sessions.
In one session dedicated to defining the role of community organizations, federation professionals and lay leaders voiced the challenges they face at home. Educating the Jewish population about what Federation does, branding and competing against fellow Jewish agencies for the same pool of donor dollars — and keeping major donors happy — were of concern to many.
The sentiment expressed was that the “genie is out of the bottle” when it comes to convincing agencies to forgo their own fundraising in favor of having communal funds disbursed to them, explained one federation campaign chair. Another community professional, whose small federation adheres to the traditional model of fundraising, said that while their recognition in the community was strong, the reliance on a handful of donors gave said unnamed donors outsized power over programming and, in some cases, hiring and firing.
Rabbi Scott Rosenberg, senior rabbi of Har Zion Temple, who sits on the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Center for Social Responsibility, said that throughout the sessions he attended he sensed that the Jewish community is approaching a “paradigm shift organizationally, thematically and programmatically.”
“As leaders, we need to face that change,” he said. “We can’t fear conversations, conversations that are deeper about the ‘why we Jew’ and not just ‘how we Jew.’”
Coming from a session focused on engaging millennials, Rosenberg said, he did think that federations still have a compelling message and can help “empower Jews to lead a meaningful Jewish life based on where they are, cultivate their souls and uniqueness without undermining their uniqueness.”
Contact:: [email protected]