Losing the Forest for the Trees

Second Opinion

By Russell Robinson

Published March 25, 2005, issue of March 25, 2005.
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For more than 100 years, the name Jewish National Fund — and the name of our primary agent in Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael — has stood for three things: uniting Jews everywhere with the land of Israel, developing that land into a thriving and vibrant home for the Jewish people, and promoting Zionism through education. For one generation this meant buying the land itself; for another it meant planting the forests vital to the development of the land. Today, that mission includes creating water projects and parks, security roads and new Israel education initiatives. We evolved beyond forestation to find new ways and new partners to best develop Israel and the land — the soul of Israel.

Unfortunately, the fact that JNF America remains as committed as ever to its mission could not be gleaned from a March 11 article in the Forward, which questioned how we do selected portions of our work (“Tree Charity Embroiled In New Flap Over Funds”). A reply is in order, so that the hundreds of thousands of donors who support our work, and the millions of people who care about Israel, aren’t left with the misimpression that there’s something amiss at JNF America.

Take the question of our tree-planting program and the ratio of the cost of planting trees to the cost of taking and processing each order: This cost is high, but reducing it would likely mean eliminating the ability of one person to plant just one tree in Israel. Last year, 430,000 trees were ordered and 430,000 trees were planted. No act more profoundly — or more proudly — defines JNF than its ability to enable any individual to make his or her unique covenant with the land of Israel by planting a single tree there. All our lay leaders agree that we must continue to make that possible, no matter the cost.

It was unfair of the Forward to ask a philanthropy expert to comment on the tree budget line alone. That line is only one part of a budget seven times its size, and our organization’s performance should be evaluated as whole, not on one specially selected item. As noted previously, we know this ratio is high, but we think it vital to maintain the program. Selecting just this one budget item, as the Forward did when it quoted a philanthropy expert’s concern over the tree-planting ratio, is at best unfair.

In the seven years I have been with JNF, we have totally transformed it, cutting $9 million in annual operating expenses. We have created a lean, efficient organization with committed lay leaders who keep us focused on our mission. That the JNF inherited by President Ronald Lauder seven years ago was plagued by antiquated accounting, lack of transparency and limited involvement by lay leadership makes our progress even more significant. The organizational problems have been resolved, and today JNF America stands in the forefront of successful nonprofits, meeting all 23 Better Business Bureau standards — one of very few Jewish organizations to do so.

The Forward’s article refers to a 1997 press report that referred to a goal of sending 70% of money raised to Israel. That goal was set by a group of lay and professional leaders during a troubled period. JNF now operates on a different model, which began five years ago when our board of directors implemented a JNF strategic planning committee recommendation to restructure our campaign to reflect the fact that today’s donors want to designate their gifts for specific projects and programs.

Donors of gifts of more than $5,000 are given the choice to direct their gift to a specific project or purpose. This is the direct extension of our “one person, one tree” commitment to large donors, and it offers them the greater satisfaction of knowing that their money is being used in a manner they have personally determined. We no longer allocate money in a way that sets predetermined percentages. Today we educate our donors about our variety of outstanding programs, and their choices determine our allocations.

To me, the discussion of these percentages is useless. One hundred percent of what JNF does is Israel related. We have no other objective. That having been said, in the last five years, almost $95 million — that’s 70% of what we’ve raised — has been utilized for programs, and 79% of that went directly for Israel projects.

Every penny of each expenditure is accounted for. This relates directly to one other issue: the funds we’ve put in escrow in Israel. It is our fiduciary responsibility to honor the wishes of the donors who make those gifts. We did what was both right and prudent. We put the funds in escrow and tied their release to completion of the projects they are to pay for. As I reported to the Forward, we meet regularly with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, and that dialogue and debate are essential elements of a true partnership, not indications of a problem.

By focusing readers’ attention on small, separate issues, the Forward seemingly lost the forest for the trees.

Russell Robinson is CEO of Jewish National Fund.

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