Federation board chair lays out strategies, plans

Bob Millstone at his downtown office. Photo: Agatha Gallagher

By Larry Levin, Publisher and CEO

Bob Millstone’s background might not be the most conventional for the leader of a mainstay Jewish organization.

“I grew up in a small town in Vermont not surrounded by many Jews. We didn’t practice Judaism at home, a little bit around Hanukkah and Passover, but I grew up with very little Jewish identity or engagement,” he said, although his grandfather, the late I.E. Millstone, was a major Jewish philanthropist in St. Louis.

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From small town Vermont to the Board Chair of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis seems like a pretty substantial evolution in his Jewish identity.

“I came to St. Louis as a college student in 1981 and I was a little uncomfortable in going to synagogue, not knowing traditional Jewish rituals. I’ve discovered through my involvement with the Jewish Federation that every individual can define Judaism how it works for them and what it means for them.

“And I saw the diversity of the Jewish community. We can really make Judaism work for us in a way that’s true to our own experiences and our own path. I became much more comfortable about my own sense of self-confidence regarding my Jewish identity and how I engage Jewishly in the world.”

In a far-ranging interview with the Jewish Light, the self-effacing and soft-spoken Millstone talked about a great many things related to both his own Jewish identity and his current leadership of the St. Louis Federation. A broad perspective on Jewish community definition and involvement seems to permeate his thoughts about the future of Judaism in St. Louis

(A large portion of this interview appears in video format on the Light website, www.stljewishlight.com.)

Change essential to growth

Millstone has assumed the mantle of lay Federation leadership at a time when the longtime chief professional, Barry Rosenberg, will be retiring, when a new strategic plan is in place, with a new allocation model coming and with the pressures of bringing in revenue during a recessionary economy.

Is he worried about whether the expectations the Federation has set for itself are reasonable in both scope and timing?

“No. I don’t want to leave the impression that we’re not concerned that things we do may work or may not. We believe firmly they will work, and if something doesn’t work we’ll be open to change.

“But if you look at the trajectory that Jewish federations across North America are on, you’ll see that the number of donors has declined over the last 20 years, (and) in absolute dollars, the campaigns have been flat or declined. So… change is necessary.

“The more quickly we can agree on the change, the more quickly we can get ourselves on a trajectory of moving toward that thriving Jewish community we want for ourselves and our children.”

Leadership and St. Louis

The hiring of a new professional leader during this climate of change is hardly easy, especially when a number of other Jewish organizations have been hiring for Federation leadership as well. This does not seem to faze Millstone, who says the search process has provided information about what others see in the St. Louis Federation.

“I can tell you what we’ve heard from the candidates themselves. One, they like the strategic plan. They think it shows we’re a progressive, thoughtful community willing to look ahead in trying to grow and enhance our community long term. They think that’s very positive.

“They think the priorities we’ve chosen are the right priorities. And to be part of a team that can implement that and shape that is very attractive.”

The St. Louis Jewish community as a whole is an additional draw, Millstone says. “They’re also attracted to the very strong sense of community in St. Louis. Every community has its strengths and weaknesses, but the… stability of our community and (its) generosity combined with the strategic plan are probably the top features that are really attractive.”

An inclusive community

The notion of reaching out to as broad a Jewish constituency as possible is important to Millstone. He says Federation board and committee participation is generally inclusive but with room to grow.

“We’re doing very well, we can always do better. I was looking at our board composition the other day. About 25 percent of our board is under age of 40, a little over half our board is under 55, the rest is over 55. All the major streams of Judaism are represented.

“We also struggle to increase gender representation on our board and committees. We have great women involved in the Federation, but I feel we’re a little light and need to continue to work on that and make the work we do (fully) representative of the entire Jewish community.”

Along the same lines, Millstone takes outreach to the entire community very seriously, particularly as it relates to ways different groups define their Jewish identity and connections.

“Two of our priorities are young families with children and Jewish identity and engagement… Those subcommittees of the planning and allocation process will consist of a combination of professional and lay volunteers who will look at best how to implement that.”

Asked how to do a better job of engagement, Millstone indicates the challenges lie in appealing to different constituencies.

“It’s very individual, and we need to look at and think about it for what’s right for the individual. We do have a new service, called a concierge service just centered around that very issue (relating to young families).

“Jayne Langsam used to be on the (Federation) board, decided she wanted to work on this issue, and she’s our new professional. She reaches out to families, and asks what are they interested in, how do they want to connect either to congregations or activities, how do they want to touch the Jewish community. We don’t try to tell them what they should do, we try to understand what their interests and needs are, and then we try to connect them to those services or programs. We have to think creatively and expansively in ways like that if we want to do a better job.”

Another issue that can both bind and burden Jewish community ties is the breadth of fierce opinions regarding the State of Israel. Millstone indicates this is a serious and important issue.

“It’s a very worrisome concern (and) one of the obstacles to engaging younger Jews in the work we do.

“What I feel the challenge is around Israel is, we’ve identified criticism of Israel as being anti-Israel. We feel comfortable criticizing the policy of the United States but it doesn’t make us feel any less American, we’re still patriots, we still care about our country.

“We need to create a context where people involved or associated with the Jewish community can come together, they can debate issues … and feel comfortable they can do that in a way that doesn’t threaten their Jewish identity or their love for Israel. If we can create that culture and that honest debate, we can start to turn the tide around the issue.”

Federation perceptions

The Federation committed substantial time and resources to the lengthy talks that led to the agreement of Saul Mirowitz Reform Jewish Academy and Solomon Schechter Day School. Millstone was asked whether the Federation can be perceived as a heavy hand due to its ability to offer the so-called “power of the purse” to facilitate such transactions.

“It’s an issue we’re very sensitive to. We’re always working to eliminate that perception. And it’s difficult.

“The only way I know to do it is to be very transparent on our objectives.

“We do come with a perspective based on best practices and based on experiences of our professionals and lay volunteers, and we try to share that knowledge with organizations so they can take it into consideration. But we don’t penalize people for not following our recommendations.

“As in the situation with the day schools, if we can align ourselves in a way that will allow those organizations to meet high priorities in the community, in the way they’re effective and efficient and will provide for excellence long term, the Federation will partner with those organizations to help them be successful.”

Yet one misstep or a perceived misstep can tend to undo a large number of successes, he says.

“We’re aware of that, and hopefully we won’t reinforce that negative perception. To the extent we do we’ll try to correct it. Our goal is not to tell organizations what to do. Our goal is to help organizations thrive.”

Thriving agencies

Millstone acknowledges the importance of the 2010 strategic plan in all its activities.

“The framework of the strategic plan is going to guide our work for the foreseeable future. We’re going to fund around it. We’re realigning our organization internally around it, both in planning and allocation. Our goal is to help organizations succeed and thrive. Ultimately it’s up to any organization to decide what their mission is, and how they want to accomplish that mission.”

Still, the fact remains that the Federation’s allocations and funding can have a significant effect in an agency’s ability to fulfill its mission. What happens when an agency’s mission either doesn’t jibe with the Federation’s mission points, or the agency isn’t as adept in articulating that link?

“From a Federation perspective, we believe through the extensive community input process that we had last year, the priorities in the strategic plan are the ones that are the highest priorities for the Jewish community. There will be other things that we do at the margins around that, but those six priorities are really going to guide the focus of our work for the foreseeable future and we’re going to align our funding and our allocations with it.

“Even under the new model, there is going to be a substantial core allocation to the agencies that they can use for any purpose regardless of whether it’s consistent with the strategic plan or not. With that said though, when the Federation is looking at the appropriate level of core allocation, we’ll be taking that into consideration.”

Program competition?

Millstone believes there is a misconception about how much “programmatic” work the Federation does and whether it is trying to be a service providing organization.

“I want to make clear one aspect I think some people have been confused about with the strategic plan. The question is, why is the Federation now becoming a service provider. The answer is, we’re not.

“What were doing is saying these are the important priorities. And we’re going to fund programs in the community, whether they’re (from) an agency or a congregation and we’ll be expanding the types of organizations that are eligible for funding. But we’re not becoming a service provider, we’re not going to be providing the services directly.”

Yet Millstone acknowledges that some of the agency’s work does comprise limited kinds of service delivery.

“We do provide some services to community,” he notes, citing professional development and government relations as examples. “But we don’t see ourselves predominantly as a service provider. We see ourselves as an organization that helps assess, and brings community together to decide (its) most important priorities, then mobilize the community to provide the resources to implement those priorities.”

Reflections past and future

Millstone comes to his leadership roles not only as a businessman in real estate and construction, but as a previously practicing attorney. He’s mindful of the benefits his background’s provided him as a leader.

“I love what I do today but I miss aspects of it. I loved the practice of law. I didn’t leave the practice because I was dissatisfied with it. I was at the Department of Justice and my grandfather (I.E. Millstone) asked me to come back to St. Louis to work in the construction company, which I did. It was a great decision and I’m very happy with what I’m doing but I liked what I was doing before.

“But if you look conceptually at the practice of law, it’s about problem solving, it’s about trying to understand the situation and how you make it better, and at the end of the day, really that’s what community building is about.”

And looking backward from the end of his term as Chair, what does he see himself having accomplished?

“We’ll have a great new professional, who will build on Barry Rosenberg’s 18 years of experience and commitment to our community. We’ll have a professional who will motivate the staff and our volunteers in the community to get involved in our work, to care about it, and to help build the community we want.

“Second, we’ll do the same thing on the volunteer side. We’ll see people who haven’t volunteered before, saying, ‘I’m willing to take a look at this, I’m willing to give the Federation or other organizations in the Jewish community a chance, to see if this is something I’m interested in and inspired by.’

“If we can increase our donor base, increase the number of people getting involved in our work, and if we can start to see some beginning successes around the implementation of the strategic plan, then I’ll feel like we will have set a great foundation for the future.”