James Tisch, the new president of UJA-Federation of New York, hopes to increase fund-raising to the community’s premier charity by simplifying its goals and message.
“We are a philanthropy designed to help Jews in need — in New York, Israel and around the world,” said Tisch during an interview last week in his office at the Loews Corp., where he is president and chief operating officer.
“I’m trying to get back to our specific mission and tell the story,” he said, “because we haven’t done a good job” of communicating what the charity is all about. “I’m amazed at how many people don’t know what UJA-Federation does and how we do it.”
Tisch believes that how the charity, through its network of dozens of social service agencies, improves lives is so compelling that it sells itself. His strategy, then, is to increase donors, and contributions, by getting the story out and make contributors “feel happy rather than twist their arms.”
The challenge, he acknowledges, is that the younger generation did not grow up thinking of giving to Jewish federations automatically. “My parents’ generation was genetically coded to give,” he said, “and that code has been lost.”
His mother, Wilman (Billie), was the first woman president of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies here, from 1980 to 1983, before it merged with UJA. His father, Laurence, was the president of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York in 1973-74.
“I grew up with these issues being discussed around the dinner table,” recalls Tisch, 45.But he is not worried about reaching younger Jews because “we just need to explain to my generation” how UJA-Federation serves as a “community-based organization” that “unifies the Jewish community with respect to their philanthropic giving.”
One way to do that, he said, is to reach the mass market through direct mail and marketing, which he believes “could dramatically increase the number of donors.”
The drawback to such an effort, he said, is that it would be costly, requiring the spending of 50 cents or 60 cents for every dollar received. UJA-Federation now spends only about 15 cents to raise $1, among the lowest of any philanthropy and a fact it proudly announces in its fund-raising appeals.
“We have a policy decision to make,” said Tisch. “How sacred is that expense ratio? Do we let it drift up to bring in more of the community? If you’re concerned about minimizing expenses, why not confine fund-raising to those who give $100,000 or more, declare victory and retreat? You would raise only $30 million, but your fund-raising expenses would be 5 percent.”
By conducting a major outreach campaign to the estimated 1.4 million Jews in the New York area, Tisch said he was confident the charity could expand the donor base beyond the present 80,000. Not only would such an effort bring in new contributors, Tisch believes it would “get the word out as to what UJA-Federation is and what it accomplishes. And that’s important because it would educate a person at 20 who does not have a lot to give now but who may have it when he is 35.”
Tisch, who on July 1 succeeded Louise Greilsheimer in the three-year presidency, acknowledged that he doesn’t expect all of his wishes to be accomplished. But he promised to “use the bully pulpit of the presidency to move it in the direction I’d like to see it go.”
He described his managerial style as “delegator” — his desk is neat and he prides himself on not keeping office files. “I try to focus on the big picture,” he said. That means increasing fund-raising because “we have unlimited need and limited financial resources. And staying very focused on our mission.”
Tisch said he has his own views on the Mideast peace process and religious pluralism but does not see UJA-Federation as the venue for establishing positions on these issues. He believes some board members, swayed by their emotions, lost sight of that fact last year when they adopted a resolution on pluralism in Israel. But he said that after setting up a task force on the issue, “cooler heads prevailed” and the subject was tabled.
Tisch is proud of a handsome new packet of brochures, about six months in the making, that will help fund-raisers explain why people should give and where their money goes. It emphasizes the importance of centralized giving, which has fallen out of fashion lately, and makes strong connections to the age-old Jewish tradition of tzedaka and caring for one another.
Last year’s campaign showed a $6 million increase, the first significant jump in years, which many attribute to the success of Wall Street. Tisch said he is concerned about the impact a downward economy would have on fund raising, but said the key to success is offering “a clear articulation of what we do.”
Because fund-raising had been flat, Tisch said UJA-Federation was unable to increase its allocation to its three primary beneficiaries — the national United Jewish Appeal, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel. And a stagnant campaign meant also that UJA-Federation was unable to fund the growth of its 130 agencies, making them “less attached to our network.”
“With more money we will be able to meet their needs, and donors want to be on a winning team — one that is growing. There is no doubt that the UJA-Federation mission is one that deserves growth,” he said.
When he accepted the presidency, Tisch said he made it clear that because he had a “day job and a family” he could not devote as much time as some of his predecessors. To make the position manageable, he said he and UJA-Federation’s incoming board chairman, Judith Stern Peck, agreed to split the responsibilities.
Peck spends a good deal of time with the national organization, soon to merge, and referred to as UJA Federations of North America. It is a resource tool for almost 200 federations in cities across the U.S. and Canada, and helps deal with the major issues of world Jewry. Peck said her goal is to have UJA-Federation “grounded in our Jewish tradition of being a caring community.”
She pointed out that the organization’s mission statement identifies three goals: rescue and resettlement of Jews; taking care of needy Jews and enhancing Jewish identity.
In speaking with young people, Peck said she found that they were concerned about Jewish unity and building a community where there is respect and tolerance.
“Judaism is important to them,” she said, “and they want to teach Jewish education in a way that is more relevant to their personal experience. The role of UJA-Federation — what we are doing through our Continuity Commission — is to challenge the institutions that have this responsibility to make a more challenging and compelling experience.”
Of Tisch, Peck said she has “confidence in his management skills” and that she believes a committee should study his proposal to use direct mail and telemarketing, the latter of which was eliminated last year.
Tisch noted that whether or not Israel’s economy soars, there are serious social service needs that American Jewish charitable dollars address. Those are, for the most part, immigration and absorption. And the key, he said, is Jews in need, wherever they may be.
“I’d argue that it is the obligation of Jews around the world to help fund the immigration and absorption of Jews to Israel,” he said. “That’s the collective responsibility of Jews as a people.”
Ever the businessman, Tisch said he would like to have fewer, and shorter, meetings during his tenure, out of “respect for people’s time.” He said he hopes to “expedite the governance process, and not have meetings for meetings’ sake. My criteria will be asking myself, if I wasn’t El Presidente, would I go to this meeting?”
Along the way, he hopes to attract younger and brighter potential leaders who may have been put off by the time needed in the past to devote to the organization. Tisch would also like to change the culture of the organization so that people contribute because of its compelling mission and not because it is a “taxing authority or because of high-pressure tactics.
“Arm twisting during a solicitation turns people off, and even if you get a gift, you might lose these people for life,” he said.In May, Tisch and UJA-Federation executive vice president Stephen Solender flew from Israel to Ukraine to see how the Jews there were faring. Tisch said he learned that there are a “tremendous number of Jews in the former Soviet Union who are living in poverty and who know they are Jews only because of the ID cards they carry.
“It is important for us to help them as much as we can — those who are jobless, hungry or want to immigrate to Israel,” he said.
That trip also served to “reinvigorate” him for the challenges ahead, Tisch said, and inspired him to write a journal of his experience while flying home to New York.
He said he is aware that the task ahead is awesome but that he felt he could “make a difference changing the culture, bringing growth and communicating the message.”