At GA, Federation plan for overseas seen as blow to Jewish Agency

Opening day of the General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America in Denver, Nov. 6, 2011. ( Eric Stephenson for JFNA)


After a decades-long partnership that saw the Jewish Agency for Israel serve as the official, exclusive Zionist arm of North America’s Jewish community federations, the federation system is getting ready to date other partners.

But Jewish Agency officials say it feels more like the beginning of a divorce.

On Tuesday afternoon, at the conclusion of its General Assembly in Denver, the Jewish Federations of North America board is expected to approve a plan that will dramatically transform the historic commitment of the federations to fund the agency.  

JFNA maintains that the change is part of a grand strategy to re-establish the collective power of the federations at a time when collective action by Diaspora Jewry is harder and harder to muster. Under the new model, representatives of North America’s 157 federations on a so-called Global Planning Table will make spending decisions for overseas allocations, deciding together how the money they raise will be doled out to various organizations and programs.

For decades, the federations’ overseas allocations had gone automatically to the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in a 75-25 percent split. Under the new arrangement, the Jewish Agency and JDC still will get a share, but they will have to compete for it with other groups. They also will have less discretion than they do now about how to spend their allocations; the federations will be dictating more of the spending program to them.

“We will set the meta priorities,” said Jerry Silverman, JFNA’s CEO. “The people who raise the money get to be part of the discussion of allocating the money.”

In recent years, federations increasingly have been opting out of the historic overseas funding arrangement, cutting funding to the Jewish Agency or giving directly to causes in Israel and elsewhere around the world. Backers of the plan hope that the new arrangement will keep federations doing things together by offering collective decision-making and more options for overseas spending.

“Our goal is to keep our federations a collective to continue to change Jewish history,” Silverman said. “We’re thinking about the community as a whole.”

From the perspective of the Jewish Agency, however, which gets approximately 50 percent of its $270 million annual budget from the federations and has no real fundraising apparatus of its own, the change is seen as the beginning of a shift that could deal a significant blow to the agency.

Some federation executives suggest that’s not such a bad thing.

“Have you ever heard an Israeli say, ‘Give more money to the Jewish Agency?'” asked Barry Shrage, president of the Boston Federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies. “They’re stuck in bureaucracies. We’re on the ground working with our local Israeli partners directly. If the Jewish Agency had something compelling, we’d invest in them, too.”

Officials at the Jewish Agency, whose mission is to settle immigrants in Israel and promote Zionism around the world, declined to comment for this story except to express concern about jeopardizing the collective commitment of Diaspora Jewry to the Zionist enterprise.

“There is maybe a problem of divorce from the collective, and you can’t guarantee the future of the Jewish people without a collective,” Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, told JTA. “There is a danger people will choose to opt out of the collective, and then to restore it will be impossible.”

Federation officials say the reality is that’s already happening; federations like the one in Boston already are doing overseas allocations on their own. The Global Planning Table represents an effort to revive collective action, they say. By empowering the federations to make spending decisions without the encumbrances of exclusive partnerships with the JDC and the Jewish Agency, JFNA officials say they believe overseas giving ultimately will rise.

“It’s really about engaging more Jews, creating a new, dynamic venue to elevate the profile of and get new support for global Jewish needs,” said Joe Berkofsky, a spokesman for JFNA.

For its part, the JDC welcomes the change. Unlike the Jewish Agency, whose governing board is controlled in large part by the federations, the JDC has an independent board, a robust fundraising apparatus and a strong reputation in the federation world. The JDC, which has a $300 million annual budget, has not been happy with its 25 percent share of the federation system’s overseas dollars, and JDC officials think they can do better with the open field that the Global Planning Table represents.

“Competition isn’t evil; it’s healthy,” said Steve Schwager, CEO of the JDC. “The JDC doesn’t mind competing for designated dollars. The JDC delivers high-quality, important programs that benefit the Jewish people. I believe that when I get to make that case, we will at least maintain if not increase the level of funding.”

A few separate factors are converging to drive this major change in the federations’ philanthropy.

One is the economic downturn, which has hurt federation campaigns and overseas giving.

Another is dismay with operations at the Jewish Agency. In recent years, the agency has reshuffled its priorities away from immigration to Israel, which it still handles, and toward Zionist education in the Diaspora. Some critics question why the federations should send money to Israel just so the Jewish Agency can use it to ship Zionist emissaries back to Diaspora Jewish communities.

Jewish Agency officials counter that they have not abandoned aliyah at all and are merely more focused on making Israel central to the vast majority of Diaspora Jews who do not plan on making aliyah.

Another factor is the growing influence of foundations in the Jewish philanthropic landscape. Birthright Israel, the big Jewish idea of the last decade, came from the foundation world, not from the federations. Under the new Global Planning Table, there could be closer collaborations between federation and philanthropic foundations, and by absolving itself of its exclusive commitments to the Jewish Agency and the JDC, the federation system will have more discretion to funnel money to the right ideas.

“It’s an opportunity for us to partner with foundations in ways we haven’t previously,” said Joanne Moore, senior vice president of global planning at JFNA.

“Any effort to try to make individual federations more empowered and more engaged to follow needs is good in principle,” said Andres Spokoiny, president of the Jewish Funders Network. “Whether the Global Planning Table does that or not I don’t know.”

The process by which the Global Planning Table will go about making allocation decisions involves new commissions and committees – lots of them.

First, committees comprising representatives of the federations, the Jewish Agency, the JDC and others will discuss priorities for the federation system. Then the Global Planning Table’s executive steering committee, which will include federations but not the Jewish Agency or JDC, will decide on those priorities.

Commissions then will research how best to achieve those priorities, including consultations with outside experts, and goals for overseas spending will be set by the executive steering committee. Once that committee makes its allocations recommendations, JFNA’s board of trustees will make the final determinations about allocations; the JDC and Jewish Agency will not have a vote.

It remains to be seen whether this process will result in smarter allocations and collective action, or whether the Global Planning Table’s giving will reflect the personal and institutional relationships and predilections of federation leaders.

“It will be those who sit closest to the trough who eat first,” said one opponent of the plan who spoke on condition of anonymity.

What is almost certain is that the Global Planning Table will add a layer of complexity, work and deliberation to federations’ overseas giving. Moore acknowledges the process probably will require the hiring of new staff to help manage it. But ultimately, according to JFNA, it will be worth it.

“Imagine a world where the greatest challenges and most exciting opportunities to strengthen and build the Jewish people are discussed, studied, and understood,” says a white paper by the organization outlining the Global Planning Table. “The mission of the GPT is to inspire the Jewish Federations’ collective global work and drive collective solutions to important issues within the global Jewish community.”