John Shapiro ends his tenure as president of UJA-Federation of New York at the end of this month. He will be succeeded July 1 by his partner in office, current chairman Jerry Levin. During an interview at his sleek, modern Fifth Avenue office where he heads Chieftain Capital Management, Shapiro reflected on his “extraordinary three years” at the helm of the world’s largest local charity during a time of dramatic change.
Q: You headed federation during the economic meltdown, but what were things like when you first took office?
A: When Jerry and I came in, we were told, “you can expect the unexpected,” and at the time, our big worry was whether our endowment was too large and what should we do about it. I guess the powers that be heard our concern and smote our portfolio. It’s been a challenging period.
How do you look back at the experience now?
I leave with mixed feelings. First, it was a great experience but it took up a great deal of time. I felt like I was sprinting for the last three years. In my Wall Street work, I do a lot of research. So what I especially enjoyed at UJA was feeling part of a bigger mission, and it’s exciting to be part of that, to see what is being done.
Any regrets about your tenure?
I would have liked to have made more site visits to our various agencies to see first-hand the extraordinary work that is being done.
Your proudest achievement?
That would have to be helping to create Connect to Care [an initiative launched in response to the economic crisis, providing multiservice centers to offer job counseling, legal assistance, financial and debt consulting, and more, to people in need]. We went from perceiving the problem to executing a solution in a very short time. It’s been terrific in multiple ways, not only in helping thousands of clients, but in getting our agencies to collaborate. The challenge will be to preserve that Connect to Care DNA. I was glad to have been a part of it.
What initiative did you have the most direct influence on?
I was more instrumental in refashioning the appropriations process, allowing us to rethink our strategy in a way that was more transparent and useful. And I helped in building our in-house capability to manage endowments for our agencies, something we will soon be able to offer.
Also, we’ve made dramatic improvements in our Web site and have invested in our emerging leaders.
What were some of the other benefits of your time in office?
Coming to really appreciate the dedication of our staff and volunteers, and the scope of the services offered at UJA and by our agencies. Plus, having the privilege of working closely with Jerry [Levin] and John Ruskay, our extraordinary professional leader.
One way I will stay involved is through the Shapiro Family Fellowship program, [launched in 2008 to help future leaders of the international Jewish community connect with peers and mentors in the U.S. and Israel]. It’s been great to see the fellows come back [from a 17-day trip to Israel] and be excited about their work.