On Eve Of GA, Time For Federations To Wake Up

On Eve Of GA, Time For Federations To Wake Up

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of the most influential books in the history of science, Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” In addition to describing how new ideas overtake the old, the work also coined the term “paradigm shift,” which, to Kuhn’s dismay, became a sort of over-encompassing management buzzword.

But despite its overwhelming relevance, Kuhn’s lesson hasn’t been fully internalized, and the world of Jewish communal organizations is no exception.

According to Kuhn, scientists cling to ideas long after they should reasonably have discarded them: old paradigms resist dying. When scientists start to see “anomalies” in their models, they generally ignore or dismiss them. Even when an anomaly can’t be ignored, they find ways to explain them away in a fashion that ultimately keeps the old paradigm intact.

Over time, the “anomalies” pile up. Better measurements make evident more errors in the calculations. And scientists added more epicycles. Finally, Copernicus unveiled the truth: the geocentric paradigm itself was wrong.

Looking at the federation system on the eve of its major annual convention, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, taking place in Baltimore this week, it’s obvious that anomalies are piling up. Even when some fundraising campaigns are nominally up, they don’t keep pace with inflation. The system has been hemorrhaging donors for 20 years. In an attempt to keep fundraising up, they’ve focused more and more on the high-end contributors who’ll keep the campaigns afloat, but in the process have alienated smaller and younger donors.

Federations are no longer the “central addresses.” Donors make their philanthropic decisions on their own. Only a fraction of Jewish philanthropic assets are in federation’s control. Even in overseas giving, their funding is becoming smaller, both in absolute and in relative terms. All the while, overseas organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee and Jewish Agency for Israel raise more money directly, and over 600 “friends of” organizations channel money to Israel outside of the federation system. Even in communities known for their iron discipline, relations between federation and its agencies are showing stress.

To be sure, the anomalies plaguing the federation system can’t be blamed solely on them. Federations have made heroic efforts to remain strong in the face of a zeitgeist that doesn’t favor central organizations. The weakening of the collective, the empowering of the individual, the fragmentation of the society and the community, and even the technological changes threaten the classic federation model.

But ultimately, federations are struggling to make a 20th-century model relevant to the 21st century. Is a model designed to face the challenges of last century still relevant to the ones we face today? How can a system fulfill its mission when it was created by and for people that had a different concept of the community?

When the “occupy” movement grew, I secretly hoped that young Jews would “occupy federation,” as some did in the last 1960s. It would have created conflict, but at least it would have shown that they cared; that federation occupied an important place in their consciousness and in their understanding of the community. It would have been painful, but it was more painful that they didn’t even bother.

And yet, having lived with the federation system from the inside, and interacting with it for many years, I resist joining the choir of federation bashers. I believe that the promise of federations, as an expression of Jewish communal solidarity, is vital for the Jewish community, and probably for North American society as a whole. And I don’t think that federation and independent philanthropy are at odds: they serve different goals and they complement each other.

As funders, we care for a discrete number of issues. Federation’s role is to care for the totality; to be broad-based and to provide a global safety net. Funders need to pick an issue, a problem they want to solve, and move the needle on that issue. Federation’s mission is different. The basic idea of the campaign is, and will be, relevant, as it rests on the core Jewish value of “all Jews are responsible for one another.”

So even though I represent a network of independent funders, I have a stake, both personal and organizational, in the ultimate success of the federation system. But for that to happen, real change is needed — not more epicycles. Those in the system that strive for change should be strengthened and encouraged. There are incredibly talented and visionary folks in the system, both lay and professional. As independent funders, we need to be there, pushing them to see the anomalies and reject epicycles. We need to give them permission and backing to try new things, and — if they fail — to try again.

A new fundraising technique, a new buzzword, a new empty slogan, a new capital campaign — they’re all just epicycles. At best, they’ll just buy the system a few more years of decline. As with the geocentric paradigm, better technologies are helping render the old paradigm irrelevant. Even when federations embrace technology, they rarely embrace the values and social patterns that the new technologies represent. The federations’ ways rarely reflect the complexity and unpredictability of our community systems. They fall short of representing the incredible variety and plurality of Jewish identity today.

The federations need to analyze the essence of their paradigms and move from “command and control” to “connect and cooperate;” from “talking to” to “talking with”; from “central address” to “network builder”; from “owning” to “sharing”; from “territories” to “constellations”; from “allocating” to “partnering.”

They need to embrace radical risk-taking. They need nimbleness and flexibility, and they need to provide a venue for meaningful community conversations. They need to break the short-term tyranny of “the bottom line” in the annual campaign and begin to work in long-term, multi-pronged engagement strategies. Federations can and should be the vehicle for donors to realize some of their visions.

My point is to encourage those lay and professional leaders planning to attend the GA this week to help break the epicycles. Every time a new fundraising gimmick is suggested, another superficial change is proposed, or somebody speaks about arbitrary formulas for overseas allocation, the epicycle alarm should be heard. The system needs to engage in a serious conversation about its basic assumptions, about the essence of the model.

It is said that for Copernicus to come up with the “heliocentric” theory, he should have been standing on the sun.

Some of the folks in the federation system — new executives and some old, visionary lay leaders, at both the local and national level — are fighting for true change. They are up against inertia and skepticism. They are standing on the sun, and it’s up to us not to let them burn.

Andres Spokoiny, a former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Montreal, is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.

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