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UJC dissolves philanthropy trust

A volunteer works in El Salvador in 2002 via a program aided by the Trust for Philanthropy. (American Jewish World Service )

A volunteer works in El Salvador in 2002 via a program aided by the Trust for Philanthropy. (American Jewish World Service )

NEW YORK, Jan. 21 (JTA) — The demise of the United Jewish Communities’ experiment in “venture philanthropy” is being attributed to both budgetary pressures and changes in the fund-raising environment. The Trust for Jewish Philanthropy was created shortly after the formation of the UJC three years ago. The UJC is a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal. Touted as a “wellspring for developing brand new innovations,” the trust was meant to target new donors and foundations to support national and international projects that individual federations would be hard-pressed to mount on their own. And in offering specific donor projects, it was intended to respond to a donor trend for more control over how their dollars were spent. But last week’s move, which the UJC called a cost-cutting measure, comes at a time of increased pressure from local federations to cut the UJC’s $42.5 million budget. UJC spent between $1.5 million and $1.7 million a year on the trust. It also comes at a time of increased competition for dollars when many donors are focused on crises in Israel and Argentina. Among the trust’s projects were a Jewish communal service program targeting youth, a program to advance women professionals in the Jewish community and an initiative to establish Jewish sleep-away camps that focused on the arts or children with disabilities. But in a news release issued last week, UJC CEO Stephen Hoffman stated that “in consideration of our financial priorities for the coming year, our professional and lay leadership has determined that this is not an area in which we should maintain a presence.” The director of the trust, David Altshuler, who was founding director of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, did not return calls to JTA. But the UJC stated that some “some trust activities will be absorbed into UJC departments,” and it will also try to absorb the trust’s staff — about a half a dozen people. Several familiar with the trust say the root of the problem was the perceived competition for donor funds between the trust and the local federations. Altshuler’s “hands were tied,” said Barbara Dobkin, who donated $1 million to the trust to help fund her program, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, to groom women into Jewish communal leaders. Potential donors had to be cleared by local federations, she said, and “most federations did not want any of their donors to be solicited. “I wouldn’t want anyone deciding for me whether or not I could be solicited for that,” she said. “I don’t belong to anybody.” Dobkin expressed dismay with the way the plan turned out, saying the trust was supposed to deliver $4 million for her program, but she said it came up with about $175,000. She said she would pursue the initiative, which she said was going like “gangbusters,” outside the purview of UJC, unless it agreed to help them fund raise. But others that benefitted from the trust praised its work. Ruth Messinger, executive director of the American Jewish World Service, one of 15 groups comprising the Jewish Coalition for Service, which got seed money from the trust, said it “did extraordinary work for us.” The trust helped the coalition, which is naming its first executive director this week, raise funds for its first two years, she said. It was “directly responsible for a significant amount of the publicity that we’ve gotten and they were advisers and consultants. They played exactly the role we wanted them to play and they made a huge difference,” she said. UJC insiders cite budget concerns as the main reason for terminating the project. “We weren’t producing enough to say it was worth a million and a half dollars out of the budget,” said Karen Shapira, a UJC vice chair. UJC’s budget is under intense scrutiny by member federations, many of whom claim it’s too bloated. The budget is slated for review in June. “There is a lot of pressure to examine everything we’re doing” to see if it substantially services federations and the UJC, Shapira said. In explaining its dissolution, many say the trust emerged at a time when too many other needs demanded federations’ attention, and it simply wasn’t returning the investment. Marvin Lender, the bagel magnate who was a member of the trust’s board, said the timing was not right for the trust, emerging as it did just before a period of crisis for the Jewish community. “It takes time, seeds have to be planted, contacts have to be made and that requires patience and perseverance on the part of its owners which are the federations/UJC,” Lender said. “I think we’re living at a time of crisis in the Jewish communal world, and I just don’t think people can get to this right now. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t revisit it somewhere down the road.” According to another UJC vice chair, Robert Schrayer, the UJC was conducting too many fund-raising initiatives at once. He cited the Israel Emergency Campaign and the annual campaigns of local federations, on which local leaders were more focused. “We were asking for a lot of things, and I don’t think anybody was concentrating on the trust,” he said. “We should have terminated it a while back,” he said, saying the trust only solicited “one or two” foundations anyway. But for those who held out hope that the trust could foster new donors, and innovative projects, the loss is a serious blow. “It was an opportunity for them to be a more inclusive organization and to offer a broader vision of what UJC could be,” Dobkin said. Now, “it’s back to business as usual.” That may be typical for organizational life, according to Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. “In any organization, there is a huge tension between experimenting with the new and staying with the old,” and the old usually wins, he said. But it’s a decision that comes with a cost. “I understand that the community is under significant pressures with the Israel Emergency Campaign and the crisis in Argentina, but personally I believe that a time of crisis is also a time when a vibrant community like ours should be trying to figure out what’s next,” said Messinger of the American Jewish World Service. “Jewish service is one of those things and it will proceed. I’m just sorry we won’t have the trust to help.”

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