Major changes ahead at major Jewish charity
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Major changes ahead at major Jewish charity

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Alan Scharfstein, president of UJA-NNJ, spoke at the federation’s Super Sunday earlier this year.

“We want to be an organization that is nimble, responsive, fast, not what people perceive as a federation,” said Alan Scharfstein, president of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. His words conjured up contrasting images: a sleek racehorse versus an unwieldy, slow-moving mammoth.

And we all know what happened to the mammoths.

To do its work well in an evolving communal landscape, UJA-NNJ must evolve as well, Scharfstein said. In an interview last month at its Paramus offices, he and federation officials outlined sweeping changes, changes designed, he said, “not only to manage funds but to engage the next generation.”

Some of the changes will also cut costs, which is opportune during the current recession, but, Scharfstein said, they were being planned two years ago.

Donors want involvement

Typically, a federation collects donations and then disburses them, after expenses, where its lay and professional leaders decide they are most needed. It’s able to do this because of what Howard Charish, its executive vice president, called its “centrality.”

“No other organization has the managerial oversight to shape priorities,” he said at last month’s meeting. “It is the place to respond in a crisis. We have [communal and charitable] partners, many major players, but centrality” gives the agency the strength and ability to act on behalf of Jewish causes locally and worldwide.

That model has been effective for decades, particularly where Israel’s needs were concerned. But then a fierce new wind blew through the philanthropic world. And you could say that wind was Katrina.

“In crisis campaigns,” Charish explained, as in the case of bomb-weary Sderot, “we’ve seen an outpouring from people who specifically wanted to help in a certain situation.” And the 2005 hurricane was on our American shores, its devastation and humanly crushing aftermath vividly depicted in American media. Donations to the federation’s Katrina campaign amounted to $400,000. But donors wanted to give more than money; they wanted to give hands-on help. The federation responded to their eagerness to be of use by organizing four missions that brought some 120 people to New Orleans to help clean up and rebuild the flood-ravaged area. In fact, the federation has scheduled another New Orleans mission in November, to coincide with its annual mitzvah day. “It’s hands-on tikkun olam,” said Stuart Himmelfarb, the federation’s chief marketing officer, a participant at the meeting – and a New Orleans volunteer.

“We’re seeing a trend,” said Charish, in which donors want to be personally as well as financially invested – although not necessarily as directly as in Louisiana – in their charitable giving.

Younger donors especially, said Scharfstein, believe in “impact giving. They want to ‘follow the money,’ see the good it actually does.”

This is a national trend, and it’s being impelled, at least in part, by economic realities.

Peter Frumkin, a sociologist at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, observed in the May 21 New York Times that “in tough times, people tend to gravitate toward direct service because they want something concrete from their giving.”

Also, just as investors seek to protect their money by creating diversified portfolios, donors to charities are seeking “more options that will have meaning for them,” said Himmelfarb.

One lesson here, Scharfstein said, is that “we have to be able to talk to donors about their passions, what interests and excites them…. We have to offer them an opportunity to fund and participate in a program that excites them and fills an unmet need in the community.”

The federation’s “philanthropic portfolio” is already rich with such beneficiaries as a fund for Jewish education in northern New Jersey and another for at-risk youth in Nahariya, UJA-NNJ’s sister city in Israel. But now, in what it calls its “Dynamic Operating Model,” its “new personalized approach to philanthropy,” it is actively inviting donors to personalize and even propose their own projects. In a packet of materials available from Elliot Halperin, UJA-NNJ’s campaign director, at (201) 820-3950, the federation notes that “supplemental projects can be created anywhere there is a need you want to help meet. From northern New Jersey or New Orleans to Nahariya or North Ossetia, UJA Federation has the partners in place to create and implement a project for you. And once your project is up and running, we’ll monitor the results and report measurable outcomes so that you can be directly connected to the impact of your philanthropy.”

The word “supplemental” is key here. A leaflet in the packet explains, “In this way, UJA is creating multiple streams of income, supplementing the ongoing impact of the annual campaign and responding to the interests and desires of its donors.”

But for such donors to be reached in the first place, Scharfstein continued, the federation has to rethink much of the way it has traditionally operated. “Our meetings have got to be made shorter,” he said. “Our committees have to be younger.” And members might communicate through e-mail and hold meetings online. “Virtual meetings,” in his view, “tend to be crisper, more focused.”
Also, Himmelfarb observed, “the younger portion of the community is stepping up in different ways. They’re wired differently,” said the father of a 22-year-old just back from Birthright Israel. He noted, especially, the wide appeal to young people of social networking sites.

All three men agreed, in Scharfstein’s words, that “we have to move into the 21st century. And we have to be more businesslike in the way we approach many issues.”

The recession has actually been a boon in this respect, they said. It’s been an opportunity to make tough decisions and become more efficient.

Budget cuts and clearer goals

Most federations’ annual campaigns are suffering because of the foundering economy and, Scharfstein said, “we know our campaign is going to be down.” This year’s campaign goal is only $10.5 million, in contrast to last year’s $13.2 million. “Leadership and staff have stepped up to respond to that. We have cut over $1 million out of this federation’s [$5,279,000] budget.”

Some of the cuts, he went on, were “very painful, with a human cost. More than one-quarter of the federation’s staff has been cut.” Last July, UJA-NNJ had 68 employees. Now there are 52, some of whom have had their hours reduced.

Scharfstein stressed that the cuts were “not across the board but, rather, prioritized. This is part of our commitment to our donors to guarantee that every possible dollar gets where it is most needed.”

Most cuts were effective June 1, according to Charish, although in February some employees were laid off and others’ hours were cut.

In other cost-cutting measures, according to a communication from Miriam Allenson, the federation’s director of marketing services, it is exploring collaborating with the YJCC in Washington Township and other agencies on cost-sharing/reduction measures, as well as with other Jewish federations in the state.

For example, as The Jewish Standard reported on May 15, the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council is merging with the Community Relations Council of the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest as of July 1. The federations will share the costs of the new entity, to be called the Regional Community Relations Council.

The July 1, 2004, merger of UJA-NNJ’s precursors, UJA Federation of Bergen County & North Hudson and the Jewish Federation of North Jersey, came with certain constraints. “The merger agreement said any discussion [of elimination of jobs and/or agencies] could not be held for at least three years,” Scharfstein explained. Now, he said, “The [economic] crisis creates an atmosphere that will allow us to drive change.”

UJA-NNJ has re-examined its goals and priorities and is “addressing how to eliminate redundancies and create efficiencies among agencies that serve the same needs. We cannot simply sit back and let things continue.”

The merger brought with it a second Jewish Family Service, based in Wayne, and its continued existence is being studied. “A committee is engaged in this led by a past federation president,” according to Charish.

The brighter side of budget cuts

The current emphasis on personal involvement in charitable giving is having a positive effect on cash- and staff-strapped local agencies, inspiring volunteers to fill professional gaps.

Alice Blass, the coordinator of Get Connected, which matches volunteers with opportunities and agencies, said in a telephone interview on Monday that in the fall, when the economic crisis started to develop, both the Teaneck- and Wayne-based Jewish Family Services were inundated by requests for help. “They had an enormous client caseload and asked UJA to help,” which is what the federation did, enlisting volunteers through its professional divisions – particularly in the legal, financial, and health arenas – and through word of mouth.

Today the pro bono network consists of more than 50 physicians, attorneys, psychologists, debt counselors, and the like, through JFS.

More are being sought, Blass says. “We are always in need of more psychiatrists.” (For information about volunteering , call 201-820-3948.)

Putting it all together

Taking into account new donors’ attitudes and the economy, the federation is building on its concept of centrality by restructuring, Charish said, “into four centers of service,” effective July 1.

The Center for Leadership and Volunteer Development (Get Connected) will “train and enable volunteers to take responsibility,” he said.

It will “fulfill our commitment to finding and inspiring the next generation of leadership,” Himmelfarb added.

The second, the Center for Philanthropy, will oversee all fund-raising, including the annual campaign, the endowment fund, and supplemental projects.

The third, the Center for Community Development and Innovation, encompasses such groups as Synagogue Leadership Initiative, Hillel, JCRC, and Jewish education. “We want to break down the walls and department,” Charish said, explaining that “SLI and Jewish education can collaborate; we’re going to meld functions.”

The fourth, the Center for Israel Engagement, will include the Israel Programs Center and Partnership 2000.

“We’re doing what needs to be done,” Scharfstein said.

The federation’s annual meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m. at its Eisenhower Drive offices.

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