How To Fix a Charity

Published February 18, 2005, issue of February 18, 2005.
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The world of Jewish charity and community organization has been offered a rare opportunity for growth and adaptation with the publication this month of “From Predictability to Chaos?” the penetrating study of the United Jewish Communities by a pair of communal experts at Hebrew Union College, Gerald Bubis and Steven Windmueller. The study offers important insights into the pitfalls that dogged the creation of UJC — still the multibillion-dollar giant of Jewish community life — and the changes that could yet save it from itself.

The opportunity will be missed, however, if charity leaders follow the unfortunate lead of UJC’s chief executive, Howard Rieger, who pooh-poohed the study as “so-called findings” last week in his weekly e-mail message, reported by Nathaniel Popper on Page 5.

UJC was formed five years ago through a merger of three national agencies that had served America’s network of local Jewish charitable federations since the 1930s. The merger, the product of a decade of discussions, was described at the time mainly as a way to increase efficiency and reduce duplication among the three agencies — the Council of Jewish Federations, United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal. But it also represented a promise: By marshaling the power of the purse, the federations had an opportunity to become central addresses in their communities, providing a common ground for debate, innovation and joint action. The UJC merger could have mobilized those energies on a national scale.

It’s no secret that things haven’t worked out as hoped. Instead of throwing open the windows, letting in new ideas and bringing everyone to the table, UJC has created an aura of defensiveness and immobility. The new study shows why. Federation donors and executives got caught up in struggles for control. Advocates of local and Israeli needs fought each other to a standstill. Representatives of the broader community, such as rabbis and academics, were shut out, cutting off new ideas and effectively narrowing the institution’s constituency. Not least, the founders discarded one of their most valuable assets, the familiar UJA brand name.

The study’s authors insist the institution still can be fixed, and they offer a list of sensible reforms. First, bring back the UJA brand. Second, open the institution and its governing bodies to thinkers, to spiritual leaders, to people who aren’t millionaires and, not least, to women. Third, encourage rather than suppress open debate and new thinking on everything from education to Israeli policy. Fourth, open up new channels of leadership recruitment and professional development to bring in new blood and to give staffers a feeling of involvement and mission.

None of this is rocket science. Jewish federated charities still represent one of the world’s most successful systems of voluntary activism, but they’re rapidly losing their central role in the life and mind of their community. With some guts and imagination, they can open a new chapter for themselves — and, perhaps, for the Jewish community as a whole.

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