In its latest jolt of turmoil, the United Jewish Communities has moved to dissolve its experimental venture in non-traditional giving, The Trust for Jewish Philanthropy.
UJC, the roof body of federated Jewish philanthropies in North America, issued a statement Tuesday, reportedly in response to inquiries by the Forward, that it has pulled the trust’s funding, citing budgetary constraints. The decision appears to mean the dissolution of the trust, whose operating budget was paid in full by UJC.
The trust’s president, David Altshuler, is an acclaimed scholar-activist who had previously served as founding director of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. It was not clear from UJC what Altshuler’s fate would be. He declined to be interviewed.
The announcement comes on the heels of yet another shakeup at the highest levels of the troubled UJC. Its chief financial officer, Kenneth Brown, abruptly stepped down January 9 and is to be replaced by Samuel Astrof of United Way of New York City. And the director of UJC’s annual General Assembly, David Frank, has decided to leave his post after planning the huge conference for the last three years. Frank’s decision follows an especially ill-received G.A. in November. Frank said he is not yet sure whether he will leave UJC altogether or merely transfer to another department.
The three departures appear to have no immediate connection.
UJC was created in 2000 through a merger of three national charities, including the United Jewish Appeal. It serves as a central coordinating and service body for some 160 local federations of Jewish charities, which fund and operate a multibillion-dollar network of social service and cultural agencies in North America and around the world.
The trust, set up at the same time as a spin-off of the central body, was intended to serve as an incubator for new models of philanthropy and to draw in a new generation of donors not engaged by the traditional model of federated giving. However, it was burdened almost from the beginning by conflicts with local federation chiefs, who were anxious to preserve an elaborate system of allocations and access to local donors.
The apparent dismantling of the trust was greeted with satisfaction by several UJC and federation leaders, who have been pressuring the organization to cut its budget. They claim the trust was not generating sufficient donations given the amount of UJC funds it was eating, just less than $2 million a year.
“The trust was an experiment,” said Richard Wexler, a top UJC lay leader and one of its most vocal critics. “It speaks well of UJC that when we find an experiment such as the trust is not succeeding and is associated with significant expense, it is to the credit of UJC leadership that it move on and find new experiments.”
“There are times when initial ideas appear to have more potential than they do when they are tested,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, in a statement. “This may have been one of them.”
At the same time, some of the trust’s main donors believe the federated system sabotaged the venture by making it answerable to local federations who laid first claim on philanthropists in their own communities.
“It is very shortsighted on the part of the federations to tie the hands of the professionals” at the trust, said Barbara Dobkin, who formed Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community with a $1 million donation to the trust. “It brings in fewer dollars than they might if federations allowed other interests of funders to be realized.”
Dobkin said she was told her donation would be matched with $4 million in grants raised by the trust. In the end, the trust only raised $180,000 for Dobkin’s project, she said.
Dobkin said the local federations, fearing competition, often forbade Altshuler from soliciting promising donors in their hometowns for her project. Dobkin said she was also “pissed off” that she did not receive notification of the trust’s closing before it was publicly announced. She noted that the women’s project is secure because it has funding commitments from other sources.
Adding to the upheaval this month at UJC, the federations are scheduled to vote January 22 on a resolution that would banish from the national body any local federation that does not pay its dues to the roof body. The dues compliance resolution is expected to pass. But there is still no definitive word on whether one federation shirking its bills, the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, Va., will decide to pay up or risk expulsion. Sources from within the Tidewater federation said that their organization might not make that decision until sometime after January 22, which could ostensibly lead to their temporary dismissal from UJC.
The Trust for Jewish Philanthropy was meant to become a semi-autonomous, self-sufficient organization working outside the channels of the federated system, which is often viewed — particularly by younger Jewish activists — as a cumbersome bureaucracy. But that mission grew muddy almost immediately after the trust’s creation when at least 14 federation leaders were named to the 20-person board. Some observers expressed concern at the time that the heavy federation presence on the board called into question the trust’s independence from UJC and its federations and would turn new groups of donors away.
Others say the trust was always meant to remain a federation-owned entity and that, in fact, the trust had not done enough to promote the interests of the federations.
“The role of the trust was to work cooperatively with federations,” said Jeffrey Klein, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County. “To raise funds, supplement funds for projects and programs directly related to the programs and priorities of UJC and the federations. I’m not sure whether those goals were fully realized.”
One trustee of the foundation’s board said he “can understand” why UJC pulled its funding. “We’re living in a world of Jewish crisis,” said Marvin Lender, a Connecticut-based bagel baron. “I don’t think the timing is right to try and make this thing work. We need to step back and try and see what went right and what went wrong.”
UJC announced in a statement Tuesday that Altshuler and his staff will “oversee The Trust’s closing and related transition activities.” While UJC promised in its statement to take on some of the trust’s projects and to “make every effort” to absorb trust personnel into the organization, it is not clear which programs will survive and what will become of Altshuler.
“The Trust’s vision to move the Jewish community into the future is one that we know that UJC and the Federations understand,” Altshuler said in the UJC statement. “Unfortunately, given budgetary constraints, priority has shifted to more immediate needs.”
About his former job as G.A. director, Frank told the Forward: “It’s a very, very difficult task. Certainly when it’s all done you’ve proved to yourself you could keep body and soul and wits about you in the midst of all kinds of craziness.”
Wexler, chairman of the G.A., defended Frank against criticism that last year’s G.A. was particularly bland, featuring few memorable presentations and few sessions that resulted in decisive policy resolutions or new initiatives. Wexler blamed the convention’s shortcomings on UJC’s decision to glean the G.A.’s budget mainly from convention registration. He said that the G.A.’s “break-even budget” makes it impossible to schedule speakers who charge high fees but may be more inspiring.
Former UJC chief financial officer Kenneth Brown, who was also vice president of finance and administration, will be replaced by Astrof February 1. The Forward could not confirm on the record why Brown left the organization.
Dobkin, whose Advancing Women Professionals project is working with UJA-Federation of New York among other organizations, said the demise of the trust is a big step backward for the Jewish community. “I think it shows how difficult it is to make change in this community,” Dobkin told the Forward. “Everybody talks about making change, but when push comes to shove, it’s business as usual.”