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Unpacking the federations’ five areas of focus

The leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America emerged from their board meetings in Dallas Jan. 25 proudly announcing that after months of conversations with a broad spectrum of representatives from among North America’s 157 Jewish federations, it had developed five areas of focus for the federation system.

At first glance, the five areas of focus — "financial resource development; positioning for the future; talent; the power of the collective; and Israel and overseas" — do not appear to represent any sort of major shift or departure for a system that has spent more than a decade figuring out its identity.

I’m still trying to gauge the temperature of the various local federations on how they feel about the new foci, but first I wanted to unpack them a bit with Jewish Federations officials.

This is what I came away with: The themes may sound familiar, but there are a number of prospective ideas in development for potential projects in each of these areas, some of which could prove to be exciting if they get off the ground.

To boot, people within the organization say their new CEO, Jerry Silverman, is taking something of a different approach: Instead of trying to manage the system from the top down, they say, Silverman is very much trying to engage and work with the local federations, not trying to dictate what they should do. Instead of keeping the organization’s attention on itself, he’s trying to keep it on the actual needs of the local federations.

Looking over plans in the five areas of focus, there appears to be an acceptance of the idea that the federations face serious challenges, including the need to do a much better job of engaging the "Now" generation of Jews in their 20s and 30s in order to expand a shrinking donor base.

Whereas federations had some 900,000 donors 30 years ago, they now have in the neighborhood of 500,000. The system’s intake has not dropped precipitously (the combined annual campaign sits in the $900 million range, with many hundreds of millions of dollars more raised for special campaigns and endowments). But 68 percent of the donations come from just 3 percent of the donors who give $10,000 per year or more to their local federations, including 80 who give more than $1 million per year.

Check out the blog for some of the potential projects behind each of the areas of focus.

Among the more interesting:

  • The system is looking at a number of ways to better engage major donors. It is considering convening national meetings of the VIP and elite givers, trying to figure out how to energize them. The meetings could include workshops and mentoring on how those high-net worth donors can engage other ultra-wealthy Jews who are not giving to Jewish nonprofits or the federations.
  • Sometime in early spring, the federations will unveil the second phase of its work with Blue State Digital, the digital strategy firm behind the Obama campaign that also helped the federations get more than 600,000 votes for its Jewish Heroes facebook contest. The organization is being a little cagey with the details, but we’re told it will involve some form of high production value, online viral ads that are interactive and "funny."
  • Here it seems that Silverman is taking a page from his past professional life, when he was a top executive at Stride Rite shoes and Levi Strauss. He wants to launch a professional training program to help recruit talented recent college graduates into the federation system. Silverman said he would like the program to be a collaboration of the entire system that could either funnel talent through the national office to local federations or cultivate talent on a local level. "If you look at the retail world of the ’70s and ’80s, they were probably the best recruiters of top talent, they built a very disciplined approach to bringing them in, and training them over an 18- to 24-month period and then placing them in various areas of interest in the retail environment," Silverman said in a conference call with Jewish media. "Most of the chief officers in retail during the ’90s came through the management development program."
  • Jewish Federations also wants to build a stronger office in Israel to improve its outreach there and increase its presence in the Israeli media. Stateside, the organization is looking at how it can increase its advocacy for Israel at a high level. That may include the creation of The Jewish Federations Israel and Overseas Institute, an intense leadership program to teach federation laypeople and professionals how to pitch the need for more money to potential donors.
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