When it was created more than three years ago, the Trust for Jewish Philanthropy was seen as an innovative endeavor designed to channel significant dollars and creative ideas from some of the largest Jewish foundations into the Jewish federation network. But after achieving only limited success, its end was announced this week, a victim of economic hard times.
The announcement, made in the form of a press release Tuesday evening by its parent organization, the United Jewish Communities, came as a surprise to many.
"I was floored," said Arlene Wittels, a member of the board of the UJC’s National Women’s Constituency, which is designed to educate and involve women in the issues of the day. "I’m crushed. I think anything that is outside the box is not one of their priorities. This was a way of generating more funds that eventually would come into the annual campaign, but it was not given a chance. … It’s a really sad thing to see anything innovative and experimental cut."
But John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, said that although the Trust at first "appeared imaginative (and the staff and board were strong) the vision was not able to gain significant traction.
"There are times when initial ideas appear to have more potential than they do when they are tested," he said. "This may have been one of them."
Ruskay added that the Trust was not able to "definitively demonstrate that it provided ‘essential added value’ to what is a highly decentralized process of testing new possibilities for collaborative philanthropy." But he noted that "if we are to strengthen Jewish life, we need more initiatives like this which tests new possibilities, not less. Even in disappointment, we can learn."
The largest donation to the Trust for a domestic initiative was a $1 million gift from philanthropists Eric and Barbara Dobkin to launch Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community. In announcing the gift, Barbara Dobkin said the project was a "continuation of our work" to see women promoted to leadership positions in national Jewish organizations.
The Ted Arison Family Foundation made the largest contribution for overseas endeavors: $8.4 million for two projects in Israel.
But the trust reportedly had difficulty raising other substantial gifts and its operating budget of $1.7 million was still being paid last year by UJC. The Trust was supposed to be a self-sustaining, wholly owned subsidiary of the UJC. Its board was selected by the UJC.
David Altshuler, its president, could not be reached for comment. But in an interview when he was hired in October 1999, he said his goal was to be responsive to donors and help them leverage their money. In addition, he spoke of creating a "forum where recipients and donors can be heard in one common conversation."
"We want to be creative and constructive," he said.
But at the time of his appointment, no one could have guessed the economic crunch the Jewish federation system would begin facing almost from the start, observed Carole Solomon, a UJC vice chairman.
"Any new enterprise starts off very ambitiously," she said. "It was one of the more innovative ideas of the UJC and I think David and company worked very hard to get it off the ground. But there has been pressure from the beginning in terms of the vision of UJC exceeding the comfort zone of the federations in terms of budgeting."
When the UJC was formed in October 1999 as a result of a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Israel Appeal and the United Jewish Appeal, the federations expected great savings, Solomon said.
"Whether they were realistic or not, there were expectations of budget cutting," she said. "People wanted to do innovative things, but at the end of the day, things cost."
And then other factors intruded, including the Palestinian violence that began in September 2000, creating new philanthropic priorities, and the influx of Jews to Israel from Argentina following the economic collapse there.
"Nobody has a crystal ball," said Solomon. "Who could have foreseen the [violence] and the implications of an Israel emergency campaign? Many things happened that nobody could have predicted," including the worldwide recession.
"Some federations understood the potential of the trust and some did not," she said, adding that the federations wanted more fiscal responsibility from UJC and that was translated into budget cutting.
Susan Stern, who represented large city federations on the board of the Trust, said the demands on federations are increasing, though their fund raising is not keeping pace with last year’s campaigns. And she said the pressure on federations will only increase this year because state budget cutbacks are expected to cut into their funding of social service programs operated by federation agencies. (See story on page 12.)
"So people are very conscious of how every single dollar is spent, and certain priorities and decisions were made," Stern said. "What The Trust was trying to do is look at big issues that would not be funded through traditional federation sources: like Jewish camping, women’s advancement and a coalition of Jewish service organizations. They are very important, but at this moment in time, when we have crises all over the world and agencies are keeping people alive, my guess is that priorities were made."
Jeff Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, noted that the press release announcing the demise of the Trust suggests that it may be restarted in the future, should money become available.
"Needless to say, it is disappointing that we, the Jewish people, can’t see that the future is now," he said.
Noting that the women’s project and the Jewish Coalition for Service are slated to be absorbed into UJC departments, Solomon said he hoped "they would not get lost as part of this reorganization."
Stern expressed confidence that the projects were sufficiently developed so as to continue within UJC.
Carole Solomon called the Trust an "entrepreneurial philanthropic laboratory that would have, should have, could have been an important addition to the philanthropic menu that we offer. In many ways, that is why I am hoping that some of its initiatives will still be worked on."
- executive vice president
- Susan Stern
- Barbara Dobkin
- David Altshuler
- Carole Solomon
- Israel Appeal
- Charles Bronfman Philanthropies
- Arlene Wittels
- Jeff Solomon
- Eric Dobkin
- member of the board
- John Ruskay
- New York
- Staff Writer
- Stewart Ain
- Jewish organizations
- vice chairman