Internal Gridlock Stalls Federation Giving Reform

Scant Progress in Fixing System for Dividing Up Overseas Funds

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 31, 2012, issue of September 07, 2012.
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Despite promises to overhaul the way American Jews direct their contributions for causes in Israel and overseas, the Jewish Federations of North America is struggling to change the system.

An ambitious reform plan approved last year recently suffered a setback with the resignation of Joanne Moore, the top professional in charge of its implementation. With no agreement yet on a new funding mechanism, the federation system has retreated to its old formula of allocating money, at least for another year.

The reform plan, known as the Global Planning Table, was supposed to resolve difficulties in dividing the millions of dollars raised by Jewish federations across the country between the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The two groups have been at loggerheads over their respective shares of a steadily shrinking pie.

The dispute has also highlighted the tensions affecting local federations when it comes to giving for causes outside their communities; strains between recipients in Israel and American contributors, and challenges stemming from the growing reluctance among community members to donate to a general, undesignated cash pool.

In an August 20 letter to members of JFNA’s board of trustees, Jerry Silverman, the group’s president and CEO, informed lay leaders that Moore, the senior vice president of global planning, had resigned from her position as the chief professional in charge of transforming the federations’ allocation system. “We look forward to seeing and supporting the continued success of the Global Planning Table, as we build our community for the 21st century,” Silverman wrote.

But insiders in the federation system said the resignation was a result of the difficulty that Moore faced in getting the reform under way. Moore, a successful international aid expert, was brought on board to help JFNA, the umbrella organization representing 157 federations and 400 communities, tackle one of the key problems that has plagued the organization since its inception — the tug of war between JAFI and JDC over their share of the overseas funding budget.

The two organizations, commonly referred to by JFNA as “our historic partners,” have traditionally been in charge of channeling dollars raised in federations across the United States and Canada into cost-effective services and programs in Israel, the Former Soviet Union and other Jewish communities in Europe, Africa and Latin America. The money was divided based on a long-established formula that gave JAFI, whose primary tasks were in Israel, 75% of the funds and JDC only 25% for its work on non-Israel goals. Changes throughout the years have put this formula in question as JDC, which had increased its work in Israel and other destinations, argued for a greater share.

After struggling with the problem for more than a decade, JFNA, at its General Assembly last November, adopted the Global Planning Table — a system that was designed to reshape communal overseas giving based on needs, not on rigid historic formulas. Moore was brought into JFNA specifically to implement the GPT, which includes a complex structure of committees.

Numerous federation officials involved in the process, who spoke to the Forward only on condition of anonymity, said Moore quickly learned that turning the GPT into a workable system that would professionally weigh allocations and distribute money based on needs was almost an impossible task. JAFI and JDC, they say, showed no willingness to compromise, and federation representatives participating in the GPT’s four committees lacked the willingness or the clout to make tough decisions.

Moore and Silverman declined the Forward’s requests for interviews.

JFNA made clear that the GPT is still in place and undergoing assessment after its first year, and that the committees are continuing their work. “We have made great strides,” Silverman wrote to his board.

But as this year’s deadline neared for allocating overseas funds collected in 2011, it became clear that the new system would not be ready in time. JFNA therefore resorted to the old formula for another year, dividing $182 million of unrestricted funds raised by federations between JAFI and JDC according to the 75:25 rule.

In a statement explaining the need to retreat to the previous allocation formula, the chair of JFNA’s board of directors, Kathy Manning, said that “more time is needed in order to complete the effort, and we want to be sensitive to the needs of the Jewish Agency and JDC regarding their own planning and budgeting processes.” Manning stated that the GPT was making “solid progress.”

This “solid progress,” however, will be dealt with by a new set of officials starting in September. JFNA decided, after Moore’s departure, to shift responsibility for implementing the new allocation system to the hands of the group’s Israel office. The federation’s Israel arm has long been unhappy with its representation on the GPT, and the move is viewed as an attempt to address the concerns of Israeli partners that the new process could lead to fewer funds going for programs in Israel.

Meanwhile, Jewish federation funds for overseas causes have been decreasing for years. The growing domestic needs of the federations, which are now struggling to provide services for members hit by the economic downturn, and a growing interest in having direct influence on where their dollars are going have led to the dwindling of dollars known as “core money” — unrestricted funds that are not designated for any specific program. These funds have decreased by more than 20% in the past four years.

JAFI and JDC have, by and large, overcome this shortfall by seeking other funding sources, which have included partnering with the Israeli government. The two groups have also begun conducting their own fundraising, independent of the federations’ annual campaign.

Still, the “core” funds are seen as a valuable source of income for both agencies, since they are used for daily operations, emergency projects and programs that don’t receive designated donations.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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