A response from the Jewish Federation can be found at here.
Although the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle’s new allocations model has broadened the breadth of beneficiaries, it also presented a dilemma: More mouths around the table to feed but less food — money — to offer each maw. Consequently, while new groups were added into the mix of recipients, a number of longtime beneficiary agencies such as Jewish Family Service, the Stroum Jewish Community Center and Hillel at the University of Washington saw serious reductions in their allocations. Some, such as the Anti-Defamation League, got a token amount, or in the case of the American Jewish Committee, nothing at all.
In Fiscal Year 2012, the Federation received 207 letters of intent. It passed 97 applications on to the second round and, after a review process, its Planning and Allocations Committee allocated a total of $2,358,573 to 43 programs and projects. This at a time when, according to the JTNews (“Where the money’s going,” June 8, 2012), the campaign closed at just above $4.8 million — slightly lower than last year’s campaign, which itself was lower than the 2011 Fiscal Year. (This also means that the Federation will spend approximately $2.4 million on its own administration and programs.)
While Federation’s professional and lay leaders express confidence in the new allocations model and hope for increased donations in the coming year, the apparently abrupt resignations of two key Federation leaders — CEO Richard Fruchter and vice president for planning and community services Amy Wasser-Simpson — suggests that the situation is other than rosy.
Even prior to the economic downturn, Federation’s annual campaign was, at best, flat, and in recent years it has been in decline. Add to this an organizational culture that is seriously flawed. Ever since Murray Schiff was compelled to retire in the mid-1980s, the Federation leadership has chewed its way through four executive directors. This suggests an organization in serious trouble.
That two of its top professional leaders have resigned almost simultaneously — even if for personal reasons — begs the question: If the Federation has been in organizational crisis for many years, perhaps the fault is not solely that of its professionals and they alone should not bear the brunt of the blame? Although the buck does stop with the professional staff, perhaps some of the lay leadership of the Federation ought to consider resigning as well.
Right now the Federation has another interim director and a search committee of lay leaders has begun its work. Unfortunately, some of the same people who, the best of intentions notwithstanding, have helped bring the Federation to its current point of crisis also have been appointed as part of the team to recruit a new CEO. This may ensure continuity, but it also means it is highly likely that the new CEO will continue leading the organization down a troubled path. Without a radical change of direction, history is bound to repeat itself. Perhaps something even more radical is called for to remedy this situation.
The Federation stands at a crossroads. If its leadership chooses, it can behave like any other non-profit organization and continue down the path of self-perpetuation without significant change in direction. That is its prerogative, and there is no reason why it cannot become yet one more Jewish non-profit like all the others. But the Federation has always claimed to be the Jewish community’s central address, which means that it sees itself as acting on our behalf. If this is so, then the Federation owes it to its general constituents — the Jewish community — to engage us in a frank discussion about its vision and mission.
There was a time, between the end of World War II through the period of Soviet and Ethiopian aliyah to Israel, that the Federation concept resonated and worked well. In more recent years, and not just in Seattle, Federations have struggled to maintain a sense of purpose. Many, our own included, sought to bolster domestic allocations and spending on their own programs when the needs of Israel and world Jewry were less urgent.
Speaking personally, I think we need to re-form the Federation. The Federation does some wonderful work and this needs to continue, but there are so many accretions to its original mission that, like barnacles, they weigh down and could even sink the Federation vessel. Furthermore, since almost every Jewish organization today has its own fundraising department, perhaps the concept of centralized giving and allocating needs re-examination.
I think that what is needed is a series of open-ended conversations in which all parts of our community could talk about the Federation’s future — and more
significantly, to have a real say in that future. If the Federation belongs to the people, then the people should play a serious role in shaping the Federation’s future direction and in choosing the leadership that would implement that vision.
Now is the time for us to consider taking the Federation back to basics and building from the ground up, securing buy-in from all the significant stakeholders in our community, from major donors to major beneficiary agencies, and from small donors and newly funded or unfunded organizations, so that once an old/new role for the Federation has been agreed upon, everyone will have a real stake in its future success.
Rabbi Anson Laytner has worked for the Jewish Federation, American Jewish Committee, Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, Kline Galland Hospice and Jewish Family Service, among other organizations during his 30-year career in Seattle.