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The Tensions Within Philanthropies

The Tensions Within Philanthropies

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

John Ruskay, the CEO and executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, started out as a leader of the havurah movement and critic of the federation system, while Jeffrey Solomon, the president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, was once chief operating officer of UJA-Federation (and was responsible for hiring Ruskay).

In the current issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, the two colleagues, widely viewed as leaders in their posts, discuss the complex and often heated relationship between the establishment federation form of philanthropy and the more independent style of family foundations.

In respectful but frank dialogue, the two men spar at times, shedding light on the differences in, and frustrations of, their work, with complaints about the other system.

/>Ruskay, for example, accuses foundations of focusing too much on innovation and not enough on sustaining basic communal needs; Solomon counters by charging federations with “pursuing a flawed marketing and fundraising strategy.”

The dialogue was conducted by Noel Rubinton, director of editorial content at UJA-Federation of New York, and is titled “Organized Philanthropy’s Relationship to Independent Jewish Philanthropy.”

Solomon asserts that federations have not responded to the dramatic changes taking place in giving, most notably in continuing “the annual campaign strategy” that he says “is and has been failing.” He calls for “a more donor-based comprehensive approach” like the one that has proven effective in Toronto.
Ruskay defends the centralized giving concept of federations while critiquing family foundations that have “become too fervent” in advancing pet projects at the expense of the community as a whole. “Many believe there is a single bullet,” Ruskay said, noting that “there is no single answer to the challenges of strengthening Jewish identity in a highly open society.”

He said that “deepening Jewish identity” calls for having people learn about, appreciate and support broader communal needs like “caring for the elderly, the homeless and the hungry.”

Solomon was quick to agree that some foundations are “vanity-driven,” and that it is “a serious problem.” But he pointed out that foundations have the luxury of “noble failures”—experimental projects that are not successful, while federations are driven by their boards and constituents to be rigorously cost-effective, and as a result less than ambitious.

He cited the precursor to the Birthright Israel program, called The Israel Experience, as a $19 million failure on the part of the Bronfman foundation whose mistakes led directly to the success of Birthright in providing a free trip to Israel for young people.

The Israel Experience failed to attract additional young people to go to Israel, beyond those who were going on organized trips, Solomon said. “But the lessons that we learned created a management system” that resulted in more than 200,000 young people going to Israel on Birthright trips in the program’s first eight years.
With so many donors, federations cannot afford much experimentation, he said, adding that failed strategies “often continue…because politically, it’s hard to get out of them,” or there is no chance for “transparency because of the nature of accountability at a federation.”
The great challenge for federations, according to Solomon, is to “make change happen for the positive.”

Ruskay pointed out that it is not only federations but foundations as well that do not “publicly acknowledge their noble failures.”

Without naming the publication, he spoke of the concern raised when Heeb, an edgy magazine which he said he himself found “offensive,” was described in the general press as an “anti-Zionist publication funded by UJA-Federation.” The initial UJA-Federation funding was not renewed but Ruskay defended the concept of taking chances to reach new markets of Jews.

He said that UJA-Federation spends about $2 million of its $140 million campaign funds on experimental projects to reach Jews in their 20s and 30s, and that the charity has not lost donors over such spending, which he said was necessary to remain relevant.

Ruskay observed that Birthright has been such a success that it is “clouding the conversation,” leading foundations to think they can create other “home runs” in funding that will have a major impact on Jewish life. In truth, he said, “the record of family foundations is far more modest – good things – but truth be said, I think the federation model is strong.” He cited UJA-Federation’s work in New York, including Jewish hospice, work with synagogues and day schools and attracting younger people as comparing “favorably with family foundations.”

Ruskay said he would like to see foundations broaden their agenda and do more to sustain the community as a whole, and to “develop more humility” in assessing and describing their role.

Solomon said federations should broaden their donor support, and not just concentrate on major givers. He also described the human resource management situation as in “serious…crisis” with too few professionals willing to work for federations. And he warned against federations narrowing their work, taking less responsibility for their local social service agencies, a trend he called “frightening.”

Both men agreed that the “rhetorical temperature” between federations and foundations needs to be lowered, citing threats like “if you don’t support my project, I won’t make an annual gift,” and vice versa.

“We both need to disarm,” Ruskay said, adding: “We’re probably in the earliest chapter of this family foundation-federation dance. So we should take dance classes together. Jeff and I and a few others are trying. I would not say we’re doing too well at it yet.”

Solomon agreed, saying there has been no venue to air these issues, and too few opportunities to explore working together.

“We haven’t figured out how to do that effectively,” he said, “and we need to.”

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