Federations in the Driver’s Seat As ‘road to Merger’ Nears Its End
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Federations in the Driver’s Seat As ‘road to Merger’ Nears Its End

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As 1998 winds to a close, the leaders of the United Jewish Appeal and local Jewish federations are gearing up to complete the overhaul of American Jewry’s central fund- raising establishment.

This month, an outside facilitator, Jeffrey Solomon, began meeting with top professionals at UJA and the Council of Jewish Federations to keep their merger from idling on the way to a self-imposed year- end deadline.

When it emerges after nearly a decade of conceptual planning, the new entity – – born of the union of UJA, CJF and the United Israel Appeal — will have a single chief professional officer and a unified organizational structure.

It will also have a new system of governance that puts federations squarely in the driver’s seat of North America’s primary Jewish charity, which raises over $1 billion a year for Jewish needs, both nationally and overseas.

“I think it’s appropriate that the federations control the system,” Dr. Conrad Giles of Detroit, CJF’s president, said in a telephone interview. “It is their system. They are paying for it, and whatever sense of loss of control they have had in the past is regrettable.”

That sense, he explained, grew out of a perception that the national organizations, although supported by local federations, were not responding to the communities’ needs. As a result, an increasing number of federations began to demand a louder voice and a greater share in deciding how funds would be allocated here and in Europe and Israel.

Last month in Washington, a three-day quarterly meeting of the UJA-CJF-UIA partnership, which currently is being called the UJA Federations of North America, yielded a basic outline for operations. It gives federations a majority voice in the partnership’s governing bodies.

“I’m convinced that with the ownership of the new organization,” Giles said, federations “will also accept the responsibility of making certain that the system does its best for all of its members.”

Still to be resolved are several potential sticking points.

For example, the structure and function of committees will reflect widely debated issues, such as the need for a Jewish renaissance committee to address concerns about education and continuity or a committee to oversee and secure funding for national social service agencies.

Moreover, a recommendation endorsed by the committee drafting the plans for the new entity centers around one of the merger’s most divisive issues: collective responsibility — the degree to which federations should be obligated to contribute at set levels to nationally determined fund-raising priorities.

The drafting committee’s report proposes that communities voluntarily commit to maintain current levels of overseas allocations for the next two years to provide security for agencies administering funds abroad, namely the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Significantly, the drafting committee’s report represents “an effort rising up by those who will own the organization” rather than a “top-down effort,” UJA President Richard Wexler of Chicago said in a telephone interview.

Ideas about governance, funding and the distribution of funds raised by the new entity, he said, “rose directly from the federations themselves” at the meetings in Washington. Those talks really helped energize the partnership, Wexler said.

“That’s our biggest challenge,” he said. “How do we assure that the new organization has the kind of engagement by the leadership of the fund-raising world, overseas advocacy, mega-donors and federation leaders in a new organization with vision and dynamism? That’s been our failing to date.”

The committee of over 40 lay leaders and professionals charged with fashioning the partnership’s new structure reached broad consensus related to three key concerns: ownership/governance, collective responsibility and sources of funding (a combination of dues and allocations).

Under the new system, the centralized entity would be governed by:

a delegate assembly of hundreds of representatives from federations and national beneficiary agencies, such as the Jewish Community Centers of North America and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture;

a board of trustees with between 100 and 120 members, the majority of whom would be nominated directly by and from federations; and

a 20-person executive committee composed of officers, major standing committee chairs, representative federation presidents and the five chairs of the consolidated UJA-CJF regional offices (in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Bergen County, N.J., and Deerfield Beach, Fla.).

The drafting committee distributed its report last month to federation and partnership leaders. The committee will meet on Oct. 20 to discuss more precise details of structural and conceptual points.

And while fundamental issues — including an overall vision and mission statement — have yet to be determined, the drafting committee’s report is seen as a major milestone along the “road to merger.”

Until last month, that road has been a bumpy one, snarled in what Wexler described as “gridlock” between professional and lay leaders coming to the partnership from organizations with distinctly different policies, practices and procedures.

To keep the conversation flowing — and to clear the way for a new chief executive — the partnership has engaged Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, who until last year was the chief operating officer of the New York UJA-Federation.

“Bringing someone like Jeff in to help us frame the partnership and to facilitate meetings and thinking,” Wexler said, “was vital to assuring we could meet the time frame we’ve committed ourselves to.”

The mega-philanthropy is scheduled to begin operating under a new name and a new chief executive by the end of the year.

“We’re hoping to at least help the new executive meet the ground running,” said Solomon, hours before he headed to the partnership’s headquarters in downtown Manhattan, where CJF, UJA and UIA set up shop together in June.

A search committee, headed by lay leaders Richard Pearlstone of Aspen, Colo., and Daniel Shapiro of New York, will meet for a third time this month, but, despite rumors about prime contenders, no official candidates for the position have been named so far.

Meanwhile, Jay Yoskowitz, the former senior associate executive vice president at CJF, has taken over as CJF executive vice president, succeeding Martin Kraar.

Yoskowitz says he will stay on for “the duration,” until a new chief executive gets behind the wheel of the centralized system.

And while he admitted no worries, his future role there and, by association, that of his UJA counterpart, Bernard Moscovitz, is, as yet, unclear.

“Whoever the chief is, whoever the new professional and lay people are, they will need to develop a system that is comfortable for them,” Yoskowitz said in a spare moment between meetings.

“We’re moving along, working as quickly as we can,” he said, to come to conclusions “as we move closer and closer to the new entity.”

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