Top Charities Spar Over Turf

By Nacha Cattan

Published March 07, 2003, issue of March 07, 2003.
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Two of the most powerful Jewish charities in North America are trading accusations of undercutting each other’s efforts.

The United Jewish Communities, the roof body of North American Jewish federations, complained in a February 28 letter that one of its primary overseas partners, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is undermining UJC by appealing directly to local Jewish federations for funds.

The JDC receives about 25% of all federation funds allocated to overseas needs, or about $45 million last year. In appeal letters sent to almost all 156 local federations on or around February 20, it asked for an immediate increase in allocations for “urgent relief efforts” in Argentina and the former Soviet Union.

The JDC appeal cited “dire” needs in those two countries, and asked that federations forward additional funds “through UJC.”

The UJC’s February 28 letter to the JDC, signed by three top UJC lay leaders, acknowledges a “growing amount of unmet needs” worldwide, but insists the answer to the problem “cannot be for one of our overseas partners to act unilaterally. This will only serve to subvert our national effort.”

JDC officials interviewed by the Forward countered that their organization had been making similar appeals for years, with UJC permission, and that it did so this past month because UJC was not allocating sufficient funds for starving Jews in the former Soviet Union.

The JDC appeal claims a shortfall of $19.775 million necessary to continue serving the needy in Argentina and the former Soviet Union at the “current level.” The appeal requests the immediate transfer of a specific amount of money from each federation based on the size of its annual campaign, according to a formula known as “fair share.” The appeal hit mailboxes mere days in advance of a UJC request to federations for $10 million in additional funding to the JDC for Argentine Jews. JDC officials said that no similar appeal would be made to help Jews in the former Soviet Union.

The UJC letter complained that the JDC had circumvented an elaborate UJC system for allocating overseas funding. According to UJC, the JDC did not consult or even notify UJC’s Overseas Needs and Distribution Committee, or ONAD, which includes representatives of local federations and overseas relief agencies. Moreover, UJC argued, the JDC’s calculation of each federation’s fair share is “not necessarily accurate,” the letter states.

One of the signatories of the UJC letter, ONAD chair Steven Klinghoffer, acknowledged in an interview that the JDC had approached federations directly in the past without incident. Klinghoffer said he objected to this particular appeal because it circumvented ONAD, which he said is the only body authorized to calculate and request a “fair share” donation. The appeal “caused an enormous amount of confusion” for federations, Klinghoffer said.

Some local federation leaders also criticized JDC. “It was disconcerting to see one of our partners deviate from the process,” the president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, Jay Sarver, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

At issue is what some observers say is the failure of the national charity system to secure from local federations the overseas dollars agreed upon by the federations themselves. The UJC’s ONAD process for assessing overseas needs was created to stem the decline in overseas dollars by putting local federations that raise the money in direct control of deciding how funds should be spent abroad. While Klinghoffer said overseas donations have considerably increased since then, others claim they fell some $23 million short of the amount recommended by ONAD during the last two years.

ONAD is a byproduct of the 2000 creation of UJC, a merger of three national charities: the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the smaller United Israel Appeal. Some critics say the new body is failing to fulfill the UJA mission of advocating effectively for overseas needs. As a result, UJC’s two international clients, the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel, have been forced to lobby federations directly on their own behalf, and often in direct competition with one another.

Compounding the tension is a growing dissatisfaction among JDC leaders over the way UJC splits overseas monies between the JDC and the Jewish Agency. The 75%-25% split, in the Jewish Agency’s favor, was supposed to be reevaluated last November by ONAD, but the discussion was shelved until the summer of 2004. The JDC has been arguing that the split is inequitable given crises in Argentina and the former Soviet Union and the drop in the number of immigrants to Israel.

“We would be perfectly happy, delighted, not to have to go around the country and raise money in this manner,” the executive vice-president of the JDC, Steven Schwager, told the Forward. “We asked the ONAD committee to make a change in this formula. The committee put off that decision. Consequently we’re left with no choice.” Four federations have already committed themselves to complying with the JDC’s appeal, Schwager said.

The JDC’s February 20 appeal states that it is “dramatically” increasing its request because “the situation in Argentina continues to escalate in devastating ways, and ONAD revenue for the [former Soviet Union] Hunger Relief has simultaneously declined.”

The UJC letter is signed by Klinghoffer, board chairman James Tisch and the chairman of the executive committee, Robert Goldberg.

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