How Jewish Federations Are Changing — and Dumping 'F-Word'

Name Change Signals Adaptation to 21st Century Needs

New Demographic: The Young Adult Department of JEWISHcolorado organizes outdoor events for young Denver Jews.
New Demographic: The Young Adult Department of JEWISHcolorado organizes outdoor events for young Denver Jews.

By Nathan Guttman

Published April 14, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.

(page 2 of 2)

But it is not a sure bet. The focus on three specific impact areas and on programs rather than on agencies will be put to the test the moment a major donor disagrees with these priorities.

Colorado’s approach builds on a model adopted a decade ago by the federation in New York, and later by San Francisco, where Jewish donors are allowed to target their dollars. Both have succeeded in curbing the shift toward restricted giving at the expense of the communal fund.

It is still too early to judge the results of the Colorado experiment, which has not completed even its first yearlong funding cycle. But leaders hope that within a period of three to five years it will effect growth in the number of donors, to as many as 8,000 from about 5,000 now. They would also like to see annual fundraising grow to $12 million a year from $10 million and to have the endowment double in size to $100 million.

Midsized federations like Colorado’s could be most adept at innovation. Smaller organizations struggle to exist, and large ones are, at times, too complicated to revolutionize. Some of the biggest federations, such as Chicago’s, have bucked the trends with strong leadership, an effective annual campaign and significant membership. Others, such as Philadelphia’s, have stagnated, due, in part, to years of tension between donors and professional leaders.

Pittsburgh, a midsize community known for its strong Jewish institutions, has drawn attention for its innovative attempt to measure performance and ensure accountability. A community scorecard launched earlier this year is the first attempt nationwide to assess a community’s strengths and weaknesses in an accessible and open way. The idea emerged from the ground up, when executives from different Jewish agencies met for a seminar sponsored by the federation. “They all noticed they share the same vision of a stronger community, and came back to the federation with the idea of the scorecard,” said Raimy Rubin, who heads the project.

The scorecard tracks and measures the work of the Jewish communal institutions, not only the federation, and publishes the results continuously. One click delivers a detailed spreadsheet and graph detailing the numbers of Pittsburgh families attending synagogues; another reveals the levels of enrollment in Jewish day schools; another click provides a detailed look at seniors using community facilities for the aging, and another click shows how Pittsburgh Jews view the importance of being Jewish.

Rubin said the system is already spotting trends and needs. A look at residential housing for people with disabilities revealed a waiting list of 250 people for only 50 open places. Another graphic highlighted the decline in enrollment at Jewish schools. “It is not a finger-pointing mechanism,” Rubin stressed, “it is a way of seeing where the needs are and how we can do things better.”

The next step is a community-wide survey to be carried out after Passover, Rubin said.

Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, said he welcomes how federations in Pittsburgh and Colorado are challenging the old way of doing business.

“Right now, we’re counter-cultural,” Silverman said, “because we still believe in the concept of annual campaign and in collective giving.”

To those fearing change, Seserman offered reassurance: “There was more to lose by standing still than by making change.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at or on Twitter, @nathanguttman

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