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Jewish nonprofits: Put ego aside and embrace the merger!

Recently, the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, termed the merging of parts of his organization with other Jewish denominations “a real possibility.” Last week, we learned that two iconic Reform temples in Brooklyn are considering a merger. The rest of the Jewish community should take notice.

There are over 10,000 Jewish nonprofits in the United States. During the Great Recession, charitable giving fell 17% between 2007 and 2009; it did not reach pre-recession heights until 2014. According to Urban Institute data, organizations with less than $1 million in revenues (which includes the vast majority of nonprofits) were the hardest hit; between 2008 and 2012, nearly 20% either failed completely or suffered a substantial decrease in revenue. If the COVID-19 recession — or depression — of 2020 and beyond looks anything like the Great Recession, and some expect it to be much worse, we could lose a couple thousand Jewish nonprofits.

In recent years, nonprofits have been encouraged to “act like businesses.” I have been a vociferous supporter of this idea. To my mind, the 501(c)3 nonprofit is a legal designation, like C Corp, or S Corp. The only real difference is that for-profit companies have one bottom line (financial) while nonprofits have two (financial and social). And I still believe that applying business discipline brings greater innovation and effectiveness to nonprofits.

But in the face of COVID-19, nonprofits, both Jewish and secular, need to take a different tack. Where businesses are constantly looking for “competitive advantage” or “market distinction,” our nonprofit organizations need to do the opposite.

The question should not be, “How can we set ourselves apart?’ but rather, “How are we like other organizations? How do we complement each other?” In one way or another, Jewish nonprofits are about serving the Jewish community today and ensuring Jewish continuity. The most important question organizations should be asking is, “How can we work together to achieve our mission more effectively?”

The “M word” — merger — often elicits fear. It shouldn’t. Done right, combined organizations can often serve more people more fully. But the conversation should not begin with merger. There are many types of collaborations short of a full merger. Organizations might offer some combined programming, provide for joint purchasing, or share back-office functions.

Start by getting to know each other and having a frank conversation about your strengths and successes as well as the places where you fall short.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to successful nonprofit partnerships is ego. Executives and board members love their organizations and earnestly believe that what they do or how they do it is unique.

Now is the time to put ego aside. Each of us can make a great contribution to Jewish life if we let go of our attachment to our individual positions and methods. Instead, keep your eye on the prize — a vibrant, sustainable Jewish community, not a trail of bankrupt or ineffective organizations.

It’s true that Jewish giving in the throes of the COVID crisis has been remarkable. ut in many cases, this support will prove to be a short-term fix. Meanwhile, there are secular funds that specifically support nonprofit integration. Jewish philanthropists should create a structure to support greater collaboration, partnerships and mergers in the Jewish nonprofit community. And donors who include one Jewish organization in their estates are often inclined to include others. If we enlarge the overall pool of legacy gifts, every areas of Jewish life will get its share. Collaboration across organizations and communities is the only way to accomplish this.

The Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego’s Create a Jewish Legacy program was instrumental in enabling the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to launch the LIFE & LEGACY program to promote after-lifetime Jewish giving through a collaborative learning environment. In the past 16 years, over 63 North American communities have participated; more than $1.4 billion have been committed to Jewish organizations and $170 million have been realized.

One area where there is already significant nationwide collaboration is in the field of endowment building. We must strengthen and expand this effort. Organizations with endowments are in a much stronger position to weather crisis, especially one with such rapid onset and uncertain sunset as COVID-19.

Organizations’ capacity to continue the work that ensures the long-term viability of the Jewish community will be tested as budgets are cut and nonprofits are focused on short-term challenges. Philanthropists, staff and lay leaders must help organizations maintain this capacity. They must also showcase these models of successful collaboration.

Rabbi Jacobs of the URJ said it best: “Change is the language. Adapting is the language.”

Let’s begin.

Beth Sirull is the President and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, Miriam and Jerome Katzin Presidential Chair. She can be reached at Beth@JCFSanDIego.org.

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