An independent analysis of United Jewish Communities’ first five years of existence, authored by two experts in American Jewish organizations, finds serious problems with the ways the umbrella and headquarters agency for 153 local Jewish federations does business. The report, titled “Predictability to Chaos? How Jewish Leaders Reinvented Their National Communal System,” includes a list of provocative recommendations intended to improve — some might say fix — one of the largest philanthropic networks in the United States. United Jewish Communities was created in 1999 by merging United Jewish Appeal, United Israel Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations –– after seven years of planning, negotiations and rancor between leaders in each of the organizations. The first two organizations raised money for Jews in Israel and distressed countries and the third dealt more with domestic issues and fund raising.
Jewish federations raise money for international, domestic and local needs. They focus on issues ranging from providing food and other basic supplies to impoverished Jews in the former Soviet Union and Israel to funding old-age homes and synagogue outreach programs in their local communities. According to a statement issued by UJC this week, Jewish federations’ annual campaigns last year raised a total of $821 million, up from $770 million in 2003. The 2005 campaign has already raised $368 million, according to the document.
Over the last few years, many Jewish federations have struggled with various fund raising campaigns that have remained essentially flat, and with the challenge of attracting young donors rather than continue to rely heavily on bequests and the beneficence of older givers.
After listening to widespread discontent from top federation players, longtime Jewish communal scholars Gerald Bubis and Steven Windmueller decided to take a closer look. They interviewed 88 people who had been involved with the merger.
What they found, according to the study released this week, is “a tale of unclear expectations, unshared visions, mixed motivations and multi-layered power games.” In another section, the report says, “The end result was a new organization which met few if anyone’s expectations. Many described it as ‘a work in progress,’ yet serious questions remain regarding its status. One of our respondents stated ‘Nobody got it right. We simply were not able to do it at this time.’”
In the end, the authors say that those who guided the merger were well-intentioned, but that the result is fundamentally flawed. Areas of concern include who has power in UJC and whose voices are being heard, the relationship of federations to UJC and even the very name of the organization.
“As citizens we felt this analysis needed to be done, to be useful. We want to put a tool out that could be helpful,” Bubis said. “It’s a labor of love directed to people who also love their labors.”
Both Bubis and Windmueller are based at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, where Windmueller currently directs of the School of Jewish Communal Service, and Bubis is the founding director. Both are also affiliated with the Center for Jewish Community Studies, which is part of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Those organizations, along with a handful of private foundations and individuals, provided the approximately $50,000 to fund and distribute the study.The first recommendation they make in the report is that United Jewish Communities change its name back to United Jewish Appeal, which has “brand recognition,” or at the least that all Jewish federations incorporate the initials UJA into their name as a few do currently.
Howard Rieger, who since September has been president and CEO of UJC, says that the idea has merit. “My choice from Day One was not to call it UJC,” he said in an interview. He feared that people would say “ ‘What’s that? I never heard of it.’”
He believes that “we should call ourselves the same thing,” each federation using the same name. “It’s not a bad idea to co-brand at that level. We’re working on co-branding our annual campaign and some of the public relations and marketing we do,” he said. “In a mobile world, it’s a good idea. People move from point A and point B, and it’s a good idea for them not to feel like they don’t know what they’re going to find.”
But at the end of the day, he says, “I worry a lot less about what we’re called than what we do.”
Another of the study’s recommendations is that UJC radically restructure the federation system along a franchise model, like that employed by the non-profit Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. That group shares uniformity across its chapters with a logo and marketing materials. In addition to steering potential volunteers to their local chapters, the national headquarters holds chapters to fund raising and other standards. Rieger vetoed that idea as something that wouldn’t work. “We’re not Wendy’s or McDonald’s,” he said. “There needs to be that element of individuality. There’s an issue of individual autonomy. I don’t think anyone nationally should think they own Phoenix or Pittsburgh or wherever.”
Another of the study’s central critiques relates to who runs UJC. According to the study’s authors, UJC is currently built on a capitalist, corporate “top-down” approach to leadership. Absent from the governing boards are rabbis, intellectuals, artists and writers, making decision-making processes not as representative as they should be.
“There’s been an unintentionally radical departure from how Jews have always governed themselves,” Bubis said. In Israel and in European and South American Jewish communities, academics, intellectuals and rabbis are at the leadership table.
“Here, there’s a marked imbalance. The power of the dollar-giver is not in balance with those who receive the dollars,” he said.
Says Windmueller, “It removes opportunity for there to be discourse and quality of debate.”
According to Rieger, academics have been underutilized, but it’s difficult to get them to commit to the committee and consensus-driven way that UJC works. UJC has a Rabbinic Cabinet, but “could we do a better job? Yeah, we probably could,” Rieger said.
The top-down, corporate leadership model began to take hold in Jewish non-profits in the 1990s “because it allows professional leadership to manage the agenda and marginalize the voices that represent the Jewish grassroots,” Windmueller said. “We want to come back to something more traditionally Jewish” in which there are three groups involved in governance: rabbis and intellectuals, professional leadership and laypeople.
At a meeting on Wednesday, about two dozen Jewish organizational leaders were slated to discuss the report at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in the West Village. The gathering was closed to the press.
The study is also being mailed to 1,200 executives and top volunteers at a range of Jewish organizations nationwide.
“In the course of this process, much learning occurred and more will be needed in order for UJC to emerge as an institution that can ultimately serve the Jewish people in this new century,” the report concludes. “The baby has been born. How it will be raised, and what awaits us, depends on the parenting it will receive in the decade ahead.”