One of the fascinating dynamics in American Jewish life today involves the complex and evolving relationship among three key groups: the Establishment organizations, symbolized by the federations, the primary engine that drives the organized Jewish community; the family foundations, which have generated great sums of philanthropic money in recent years; and the hundreds of emerging start-ups, or small, independent and youth-driven nonprofit ventures that have become increasingly popular in the last decade, especially among Generations X and Y.
A strong but subtle combination of admiration, support and resistance among those groups was just under the surface of a number of discussions — public and private — last week in Washington at the GA (the annual General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America).
Much of the focus of this GA, as in recent years, was on highlighting the work of enterprising and creative Jews in their 20s and 30s who are actively involved in service to the needy here and abroad, or who are successful entrepreneurs, bringing their new media business skills to Jewish organizational work.
For example, one plenary highlighted a young woman who left the safe confines of New York to work with the Joint Distribution Committee in Ukraine and Ethiopia for an extended period. And there were several sessions that emphasized new forms of innovation, like “The Jewish Innovation Ecosystem: How Social Entrepreneurship Can Transform Communities.”
At the opening plenary, Joe Kanfer, outgoing board chair, said that working to create a new culture of innovation was one of The Jewish Federations of North America’s top four priorities, and asserted that “experimentation must be embraced” in addition to attending to the basic social service needs federations have long championed.
One of the most engaging sessions I attended was not part of the formal GA program, but a late-night, privately sponsored effort to bring together federation professionals, lay leaders and young innovators for dialogue on how to best energize the community.
More than 120 people took part in lively discussions at round tables, in groups of 10 or so, late into the night. (Seth Cohen of Atlanta, one of the organizers, told those gathered that the idea for the informal gathering was inspired through his participation at The Conversation, the annual two-day retreat sponsored by The Jewish Week and the Center for Leadership Initiatives.)
One federation executive who participated in that late-night soiree told me approvingly there was more energy in the room than at any other GA session he attended. But a colleague of his complained that while the new start-ups are considered “sexy” and “the darling of many donors,” in part because the young entrepreneurs portray themselves as fresh, nimble and counter-Establishment, it is the federations that help support many of these groups with seed funding. “And while they are doing their thing, we do the heavy lifting,” he said, supporting the complex social service system that tends to the needs of large numbers of poor and needy in the community.
And therein lies the tension.
One finds great pride among older leaders in the community for the young activists and entrepreneurs and a great eagerness to embrace them and bring them into the federation world. But while the young Turks are enthusiastic about approaching the federations for grants and other funds, many are skittish about becoming associated with the Establishment, fearing they will lose their counterculture image among their peers.
In the beginning, a century ago, Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee and the Jewish federations were founded to meet specific needs among a growing American Jewish population, fueled by massive waves of immigration from Europe. These groups fought against anti-Semitism and discrimination, and provided a variety of social services, from meals for the poor to job training to care for the elderly.
In recent decades, family foundations became a major player in the community, outspending the federations in funding for creative and experimental projects. The Bronfmans, Wexners, Steinhardts, Schustermans and Adelsons, and others like them, have transformed Jewish philanthropy, not only in the amount of dollars spent but in the scope and boldness of their vision.
For example, Birthright Israel, far and away the most successful and transformative project in seeking to reverse the trend of diaspora assimilation, was initiated and heavily funded by a handful of these foundations.
For most of the decade that Birthright has been in business — it marks its 10th anniversary next month, having brought more than 225,000 young diaspora Jews to Israel for free 10-day trips — the federations did not come close to meeting their one-third financial obligation, in partnership with the “mega-funders” and the State of Israel.
The relationship between the foundations and the federations has its own push and pull. The foundations, free to spend as they like, tend to be more experimental and sometimes fault federations for their slow pace and perceived excessive bureaucracy. The federations, on the other hand, pride themselves on being the voice of the community; as such, they are consensus-driven, often seeking a middle road in approaching delicate issues. They are also, by nature, large operations responding to a wide variety of communal needs, which can prove frustrating to individual donors with specific priorities.
“Indeed, one of the reasons the United Ways and the United Jewish Appeals of the world are falling behind is that they usually can’t tell you what they have done with your money,” wrote megafunder Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, in their new book, “The Art Of Giving: Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan.”
Solomon made the point at a GA session that several of the major family foundations, in addition to their own philanthropic projects, are also the largest donors to their local federations’ annual campaign, often giving “seven-figure gifts.”
But John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, says that overall federations and the family foundations “haven’t learned how to dance well together, and I think that’s unfortunate.” While asserting that some foundations have done “remarkable and important work,” he said that there are too few new ones partnering with federations, and noted that many of them are in “spend-down mode” and “will be gone in five to ten years.”
Ruskay added that more of these philanthropists need to recognize that a strong federation is “critical to the Jewish community,” and “that’s a real challenge for the future.”
So consider: start-ups look to federations and foundations for funding but don’t want to be associated with federations (too old school for them); federations may support the new start-ups as part of their effort to attract younger donors and be innovative, but resent that the start-ups keep their distance; and family foundations may play in both camps but are seen as unpredictable, and maybe too independent.
Meanwhile, these three key groups are interdependent as well at times, relying on each other for funds, ideas and/or credibility. And the dance goes on.