Ken Weinberg, longtime CEO of Jewish Family Service of Greater Seattle, announced on June 20 that he would retire from his position after 38 years of working for JFS. JTNews sat down with Ken to discuss his tenure and his future.
JTNews: Why are you announcing now?
Ken Weinberg: I felt that for a CEO position, an agency this size, budget and resources, that the appropriate amount of time was to give a year’s notice.
JT: What do you feel like you have left to do, and what are you hoping will get done?
Ken: I think the issue is financial stability in an era in which financial stability is very difficult to attain. I feel at least one of my major jobs is to make sure we don’t lose ground this year, and we continue to develop our sources of revenue, be they individuals or foundations or whatever, so I will work very hard to do that. And I think that there continues to be an enormous crisis in the country in terms of unemployment and all the things that go along with having people unemployed for a very extended period of time.
I want to make sure we have the programs and the resources to deal with what I consider to be a crisis, even though the crisis has gone on for a long time.
JT: Given the state of the economy over the past four years, do you feel like it’s getting better, worse, staying the same?
Ken: I don’t think they’re getting worse, which is a sort of novel thing to say — scares me to even say it. I see that it’s bad, and stabilizing at bad. But not necessarily going downhill.
A concern that I also have is the issue of fatigue that sets into a group of donors — our supporters — who now, since 2008, have been told, “It’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad, please support us, please support us, please support us.” That’s the truth, but I’m concerned…that they just become tired of the message, or the message is redundant enough [that] it’s like, “Hey, you know what? I’ve heard this already. I’ve done my bit.”
I think that people can have the compassion fatigue not just because the agency is saying, at least for the past few years, “We’re in a crisis,” but the TV is telling them they’re in a crisis, and the radio is telling them they’re in a crisis, and NPR and NBC… Everyone is telling them, “It’s a crisis, it’s a crisis, it’s a crisis.”
Joel: So let’s go back to 1975. Young Ken, fresh out of grad school…
Ken: When I gave my retirement statement to the board, I started by listing all the presidents of the United States, and then I listed all of the [JFS] presidents that I’ve worked under. It’s an enormous list.
Going back to my beginnings, the agency was a 14- or 15-person agency and a $400,000-plus budget. A large portion of our money came from the Jewish Federation. And the second source of money came from the United Way.
We were in a place that probably had 2,500 square feet. We now have 32,000 square feet. We employ around 200 people. We have different satellite offices doing different things, and we have a budget that is approaching $9 million — so a pretty vast change.
JT: What services did you offer back then?
Ken: We did counseling. I started the Family Life Education program… services for the elderly, some refugee services, Very, very little emergency assistance.
In the old building, we had a closet in the kitchen for staff, and in the closet …there were two shelves of food. That was the food bank. A handful of people in the course of a month would utilize the food bank.
And then there were those people who came in for some sort of emergency assistance, emergency assistance being $15, $20, a Greyhound ticket to Spokane, that kind of thing. So it has been phenomenal growth.
JT: From your hire as executive director in ’84, and for the next 20 years, how did you feel the agency needed to grow to satisfy the community’s needs?
Ken: When I took over in 1984, there were a couple of groups of parents that were meeting to develop programs for their children. Some of those kids had developmental disabilities, mental retardation, and some of those kids — not necessarily kids, by the way, they could be young adults — were chronically mentally ill. Eventually it evolved into the Seattle Association for Jews with Disabilities. That was a very big increase and a very big vision changer.
Food bank and emergency assistance grew rather rapidly as well. This 15-buck take-a-Greyhound-to-Spokane, it wasn’t working and it wasn’t where we were. It was a vestige from another time when you would give a person a couple bucks and it would actually mean something.
We grew and developed, our reputation grew and developed, the population we served, the sense that we are part of a larger community and that we have some obligation to assist the larger community: Not just Jews who marry non-Jews, but the guys who are working on that building across the street. If they need help, we’re going to do our very best to help them as well.
We added a domestic violence program, because domestic violence has always been a problem in the Jewish community but it has always been a closeted issue. And then we added a program for addiction. We added that a number of years ago because Jews are as prone to addiction issues as anyone else. We added a home health program to provide in-home care for people who need it, be they elderly or otherwise. And then we began to do more for people with disabilities by renting apartments and assisting people living independently.
JT: What happened in the mid-2000s that made the agency realize there needed to be a much larger plan in place to really meet the community’s needs?
Ken: We did this very in-depth strategic plan. The strategic plan had as its premise, if we were to thoroughly meet the needs of various populations, what would we need to have in terms of staff and financial resources?
The well-paved road we went down was thinking big, and thinking holistically, and what will it really take to make a difference to the people who need our help? The potholes were, “You can’t thoroughly meet the needs of people. It is more aspirational than it is realistic.” You can shoot for it, but we actually thought we would do it, and we couldn’t. We were driving ourselves nuts trying to do that. But by having the well-paved road, we did expand when we did the domestic violence program, when we did the alternatives to addiction.
The other piece of the strategic plan was we didn’t have a facility that met our needs. We were either going to buy or build a building that would truly meet the needs of the Jewish community, general community, our workers and our stakeholders. And that began a very arduous and tortuous process of getting this building built and totally renovating the Jesse Danz building.
There was a longstanding disagreement with several people who were on the building committee. I felt this was the best place to be. I felt it was central. I felt there is a residential quality to it, that it feels comfortable, that it’s easy for people on Mercer Island and the Eastside to get to. It’s very accessible. Plus there are lots of bus routes that go past here.
We knew we were out of space. We knew that we were using large closets as offices, that we had taken little hallways and put barriers up so we could stick a worker there. And then if we were to grow much more than that, where would we put people?
JT: Are there any similar agencies that you see as a model for you now, and do other agencies look to this JFS as a model?
Ken: Our national association director was here when we had the building opening and dedication. And we are now the model. We constantly receive phone calls on “How did you do this?” “How do you implement that?” “How did you get the money for this?” So it is not uncommon for us to be presenting at national conferences, to get phone calls, and we are among a group of very elite agencies — those would include Atlanta and San Francisco and Minneapolis.
JT: Having worked in the community for close to 40 years, you’ve seen the ebbs and flows of the Jewish community. What are some of the highlights and lowlights, and where do you see the need for our agencies to improve to fully serve our community?
Ken: I think one of the things that’s really been missing is with any population group there is not a master plan. Let’s take the elderly. There is no one sitting everyone down and saying, “Let’s create our master plan for the elderly, and then let’s think about what agencies are best suited to handle which parts of this. And then we’re going to talk about funding, so we can fund this intelligently so the funds run according to the various needs that the population has.”
That doesn’t happen. We don’t do that just for the elderly, we don’t do that for any population group. From what I understand, there are communities that do. Not many. But there are some that do. I have always found that a source of frustration.
I think where we see our successes really are, as independent agencies, we’ve done really phenomenally well. You have one of the best nursing homes in the United States. You have a stellar Hillel. You have a wonderful JFS. You have the [Jewish Community Center] that’s undergoing a radical transformation now. You can go down the line and you can see that all of the various agencies are really pulling their act together. But everyone’s done it on their own.
JT: What are some of the really hard decisions you’ve had to make over the years?
Ken: There was a resettlement agency on the Eastside, and it was going out of business, and United Way phoned us and said, “Are you interested in taking this agency over?”
That was an excruciating decision. We ultimately decided yes, and I think it’s been a terrific decision for us. And it’s made us one of the leaders in the state of Washington in resettlement.
I think the building, and the building being here, were not always popular with my lay leaders, but I always felt it was what was best and pushed for it.
We were the first agency other than Federation who hired development people and then a development department. I think that was initially controversial because at first, even the board we had at that time said, “You could be feeding a lot of people instead of spending on someone who does marketing,” for example. But I certainly knew, and I think there were some people on the board who knew, that the way you would pay for all for these programs was investing in development and in marketing.
Going into the homecare business was something which was scary and costly, but I’m really, really pleased that we did it, and I think it provides a great service. Closing our two group homes and moving to a supportive living structure was controversial and painful — painful to the parents who felt perhaps that we were abandoning them. It took us a while and a lot of work for us to make sure we were not abandoning them, nor were we abandoning their children, but we were moving into a new model.
JT: And as for your future?
Ken: Definitely I will spend more time in better weather than this. But I’m very committed to this agency and very committed to this community and I expect myself to remain busy either assisting this agency or assisting this community or assisting other communities.
I feel like I’m graduating from college and the world is out there is waiting for me to make up my mind. I feel like I’ve had 38 years.
What am I going to pick and choose that will be meaningful, make a difference, continue to make a difference in the world, fulfilling, and I see that as a real challenge for me. I’ve had all of that answered by my work here.
I have to find a meaningful life in the world for the rest of my life. But it doesn’t frighten me. It doesn’t scare me. I have lots of things that I’m interested in and lots of things that I think I’m good at, and I think it will be a wonderful challenge.