Denver — The national umbrella organization for Jewish philanthropic federations has abolished its historic commitment to fund the Jewish community’s two largest overseas recipients by using a fixed longstanding formula.
The move, taken by the Jewish Federations of North America at its annual General Assembly conference, will force the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to compete for the first time with other overseas groups for funds from the umbrella group. The retention of this looser structure, dubbed the Global Planning Table, appeared to be a last ditch-effort by JFNA to save its crumbling process for collective Jewish giving abroad.
In a November 8 interview with the Forward during the G.A., Kathy Manning, chair of JFNA’s board of trustees, explained one impetus driving the transformation in the umbrella group’s historic commitment to funding needs in Israel and overseas.
“One of the things we’ve lost over the years is the understanding of what our partners do, how they use our dollars to make a real impact on the needs that they deal with,” Manning said.
Her comment reflected the growing resistance among federation officials to provide a blank check to their recipient agencies, including the Jewish Agency and the JDC, in a way that allows those agencies to manage federation charitable dollars as they please. The new JFNA plan also reflects a continuous drop in allocations by federations for causes outside their immediate communities.
A large majority adopted the new plan in a closed-door vote by JFNA’s board of trustees at the closing of the G.A.
The dramatic change in policy was felt only behind the scenes of the annual Jewish parley. It was not discussed in plenary sessions and was touched on only briefly at a few breakout meetings.
“JFNA will tell you that there was a lot of discussion about it, but for those who have concerns, this is probably not enough,” said the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee’s executive director, Mark Freedman, who attended the G.A. meeting.
An official who works for a large federation and asked not to be named complained that “no one understands the details” of the new plan and that federations were not given a chance to make changes. In an uncharacteristic fashion, debate over the plan was reserved to coffee shop discussions between delegates and anonymous e-mails sent to federation officials. Even the Jewish Agency, the major stakeholder, chose not to take on the plan publicly.
Under the new process, JFNA will decide where to send its overseas dollars based on annual discussions at the Global Planning Table. Federations participating in the process — parts of which will be reserved only to federations actually making donations for overseas — will hear ideas from members, from JAFI and JDC, and from other agencies and providers. It will then decide where to send the community’s collective funds. “This is an opportunity to really think what it means to be a collective entity,” said Joanne Moore, JFNA’s senior vice president for global planning who is in charge of launching the new process.
The collective nature of the federations’ giving to overseas causes has, in fact, been eroding for years.