Charity Chiefs Propose Restructuring Agency

By Rebecca Spence

Published April 13, 2007, issue of April 13, 2007.
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The heads of United Jewish Communities, the troubled umbrella organization of American Jewish federated charities, dropped a bombshell on their officers and constituents this month in the form of a sweeping and largely unexpected plan for restructuring the flagging organization.

The plan, laid out in a strategy paper that has only recently begun to circulate among the charities’ leaders, is meant to streamline operations and sharpen the broad focus of the central organization.

Under the proposed restructuring, devised by the president and CEO of UJC, Howard Rieger, and by UJC’s freshly minted chairman of the board, Joseph Kanfer, the organization will eliminate its existing, issue-based divisions, known as “pillars,” and collapse operations into two central offices. The domestic fundraising agenda will be addressed from New York, where efforts will be made to create a more unified brand image for the national system. In the most striking shift, overseas and Israel aid operations will be run from headquarters in Jerusalem. The plan does not appear to leave separate centers for coordinating domestic program agendas, such as Jewish education and social services.

The national body’s existing structure, under which issues are coordinated by four separate pillars — overseas aid, social service, Jewish identity and fundraising — is viewed by many as having created a raft of ineffective mini-organizations that communicate poorly with one another.

While the new plan has won praise from federation leaders, some of whom say that any change will be an improvement, it is drawing protests from some of the most prominent voices on the national charity stage. In particular, the plan — and the way it came about — is drawing heat from those leaders most invested in American Jewish giving to Israel.

“I don’t think it was processed properly,” veteran leader Jane Sherman said. Sherman chairs the Israel department of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the charities’ main overseas beneficiary. “I don’t think they went to the top lay leaders or the top professionals, and they certainly didn’t talk to their constituency, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee,” she said.

Sherman also expressed skepticism that the plan — outlined in a six-page background paper dated March 16, 2007 — will result in more dollars raised for the Jewish Agency. The quasi-governmental Israeli social service body, with a quarter-billion dollar annual budget, has seen a marked decline in recent decades in allocations from the American Jewish federations, its main funders.

UJC was formed in 1999 through a merger of three national agencies that provided centralized services to local federated Jewish charities. The merger was meant to streamline the delivery of services while reducing duplication and waste and bringing the national leadership closer to the local charities.

The previous system had been seen as marred by tension between the two main national bodies. One, the Council of Jewish Federations, was governed by the heads of local federations and provided professional services. The other, the United Jewish Appeal, was led by wealthy donors to the two main overseas beneficiaries: the Jewish Agency and the JDC. It served to give the federations’ annual fundraising campaign a unified image and to advocate among the federations for greater overseas allocations.

A third agency, United Israel Appeal, was responsible for overseeing disbursement of American charity dollars in Israel.

The 1999 merger, coming amid a decade of Middle East peacemaking and growing concern for Jewish identity, dispersed the overseas functions of the UJA among various divisions of the new body. This reduced the influence of Israel’s most outspoken advocates in this country.

The new structure, coming at a time of rising concern for Israel, appears intended in part to restore the centrality of Israel as a driving force in fundraising. Some observers, however, say that by moving the center of Israel planning and advocacy to Jerusalem, the plan could bypass Israel’s traditional American Jewish advocates altogether.

Kanfer, who has been UJC’s board chair since last November and heads the Akron, Ohio-based GOJO Industries, manufacturer of Purell hand sanitizer, said in a phone interview that much of the thinking behind the current reorganization was done at the formative stage of UJC in the late 1990s. “Good thinking was done back then,” Kanfer said. “We’re just moving in a direction that we all identified nearly a decade ago as being the right ways to move.”

But critics of the new strategy paint the reintroduction of old ideas as bad policy. Richard Wexler, chairman of United Israel Appeal (now a UJC division), pointed out that the 1999 document on which the new strategic document is partly based was never adopted, because it lacked the support of the federations. “In reorganizing the Israel office, it shouldn’t be premised on a seven-year-old report, which was rejected by the federations and by the new entity,” he said.

An excerpt from that report, drafted by Robert Aronson, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, and by Marvin Lender, former president of Lender’s Bagels and an active federation lay leader, appears on the first page of the new document.

Aronson said that his report’s original intent was to help create more “satisfying relationships” between federation donors here and local municipalities and not-for-profit organizations in Israel. UJC was to have helped local donors determine projects in Israel with which they could be closely identified.

But, Aronson said, “that’s not what was implemented.” Instead, individual agencies such as the JDC have taken to soliciting funds directly from local federations, bypassing UJC. The Jewish Agency, too, has opened its own North American office.

Neither JDC nor the Jewish Agency is working “in coordination” with the central group, as his report urged, Aronson said. “Now I think their strategy is to bring that back.”

Jewish Agency and JDC officials spoke of the new plan with cautious optimism.

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