The Jewish Federations of North America brings together a network of 148 local federations which collectively raise and allocate more than $3 billion annually for social welfare, social services, and educational needs. The JFNA has spent three decades in an effort to create an ongoing mechanism that would productively connect local federations to a group of national Jewish organizations. Its mission was “to bring together seven national Jewish agencies and the Jewish federation network into a common space, promoting deeper relationships and creating synergy among them.”
However, in a recent memo, the JFNA announced that it was shuttering its three-decade-old program that pooled funds from local federations to support a handful of national Jewish agencies. Apparently, the writing has been on the wall at the Alliance since at least 2016, when UJA-Federation of New York, the largest member of JFNA, announced it would stop contributing to the pool in 2017. Of JFNA’s 148 members, only 28 remained willing to commit support and some funding to the Alliance. As a result, JFNA determined that it could not continue the program without the New York federation. In a letter to its constituency, JFNA leaders said that efforts to save the Alliance had failed. “The pool of funding available continues to erode as more individual communities seek to manage their own decisions…While Federation communities continue to respect and value your work, our historical model is no longer sustainable. We are committed to facilitating an easy transition to your working directly with individual communities.”
Although the demise of JFNA appears to bode poorly for the future of Jewish philanthropy, nothing could be further from the truth. The discontinuation of the program comes amid a broader breakdown of the joint fundraising model on which the federation system was built. As wealthy donors demand more control over their donations, local federations are less willing to hand over funding decisions to a national body. Mark Hatfield, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), told the Forward, “Donors are not really interested in having organizations make their philanthropic decisions for them. It certainly is a bad sign for collective action.”
More Robust Giving
But not a “bad sign” for Jewish giving. As the concept of “coordinated giving” becomes less popular, the willingness to “give” seems to become more robust. As donors become more interested and active, the trend toward local control is beginning to dominate the current philanthropic model. “Obviously we are troubled by the breakdown in the collective funding system but we choose to look at this as an opportunity to deepen our ties with individual federations,” said David Bernstein, president and CEO of Jewish Council for Public Affairs, one of the national organizations affected by the change.
It seems that the “ties that bind” Jewish donors and recipients will be strengthened by this shift. That is a trend in the right direction.