NEW YORK (JTA) — Several big-name guests are slated to speak at the annual conference of North America’s largest Jewish charitable network, but the event itself promises to be heavy on the nuts-and-bolts fund-raising, budgeting and planning issues facing local federations.
Among the marquee names slated to address the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America next week in Washington are U.S. President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish Agency for Israel’s chairman, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky.
[UPDATE: The White House announced Saturday night that Obama would he had to change his plans to attend a memorial service in Fort Hood, Texas for the 13 people gunned down at the U.S. Army base there on Thursday. Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, will speak in Obama's stead on Tuesday. Additionally, Obama will meet Monday with a group of leaders from the federations' umbrella.]
And while officials at the Jewish Federations — until recently known as United Jewish Communities — say the announcement of Obama’s appearance helped boost prospective attendance to about 3,000, the rest of the schedule seems focused on the practical needs of two major constituencies.
Several sessions and workshops appear aimed at helping the 157 local federations figure out how to raise more money in a tightened economy — and how to spend it more effectively. At the same time, a good chunk of the schedule is dedicated to highlighting the needs of the federation system’s primary overseas partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
GA organizers took a more interactive approach to planning the event than they have in years past. They opened up the planning process to the federation system’s constituents — the federations, the overseas organizations, and other partners and recipients (including JTA) — allowing them to propose sessions and workshops they would like to see.
The new approach is being framed as part of a larger effort to be responsive to the needs of local communities.
“We are trying to change the focus from us to the federations themselves," Jewish Federations spokesman Joe Berkofsky said Monday. "What are their best practices? What do they need? The different areas of focus came from them.”
Annual federation campaigns had been seeing a steady decline for the better part of a decade even before the recession, as the local fund-raising organizations figured out how to adapt to a different philanthropic landscape than the one in which they had flourished during the middle part of the 20th century. But the campaigns have taken a more precipitous drop over the past year with the tough economic times, and most are predicting an even rougher year in 2009-10.
The GA will feature sessions ranging from “Fundraising in Hard Times” to workshops on how to raise money from the government as well via the social media.
The fund-raising challenges have led to shrinking allocations to the JDC and the Jewish Agency, leaving officials at those organizations increasingly upset.
In early October, Jewish Federations officials met with both agencies — together they have received on average nearly $200 million annually in recent years — to inform them that they should expect their federation allocations to decline by 10 to 20 percent in the coming year — and perhaps more next year as local fund-raising campaigns struggle with the recession.
For the JDC, that means a cut to its core allocation of between $4 million and $8 million; for the Jewish Agency, it’s three times as much.
Both organizations have made it clear that they will start reaching out on their own to individual federations to advocate for their needs. The GA will give them ample opportunity to jump-start those efforts, with a dozen or so sessions dealing with humanitarian and community-building challenges in Israel and the former Soviet Union.
Many are now looking to the Jewish Federations’ new CEO, Jerry Silverman, for answers to the domestic and overseas issues. And observers are watching to see how Silverman works with the organization’s lay leadership, which will get a new chairwoman, Kathy Manning, at the GA.
Both leaders declined pre-GA interviews with JTA and several other American Jewish media outlets.
For full on-the-ground coverage of the General Assembly, check JTA’s philanthropy blog, TheFundermentalist.com.