Kanfer looks back at JFNA chairmanship and hopes more change is possible in future


Joe Kanfer has been something of an invisible man in the Jewish federation scene since his term as chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America ended in November. He has not been attending board meetings regularly, and aside from a few cameo appearances at the General Assembly in Washington, when he handed over the reins of the lay side of the federation system, he really has been nowhere to be found in terms of federation business. 

One might speculate that Kanfer simply has had enough after three years of pushing the federation system’s central office to reform, often facing intense public pushback from its major players. Or conventional wisdom points to the fact that Kanfer has been pretty busy with his business life in recent months — after all his GOJO industries is the producer of Purell hand sanitizer, which has simply exploded since H1N1 hit the pandemic scene.

But on Monday morning Kanfer told The Fundermentalist that he has backed away for six reasons — the six new grandchildren he has had over the past year.

In a wide-ranging phone call that served as something of an exit interview six months after he officially left office, Kanfer reflected on the three years he spent as the top lay leader of the multibillion-dollar-per-year charitable network.

In looking back at the stories we’ve written about Kanfer since he took office in 2006, "change" was the word we used most often to describe Kanfer’s tenure.

Under his watch, the federations’ umbrella, then called the UJC, undertook several major planning initiatives and a serious marketing initiative that saw the organization change its name to the Jewish Federations of North America. The initiatives were all designed to do the same thing Kanfer has done with his business: create alignment of all of the different federation factions in 144 different communities – as we explained in this Kanfer’s first interview upon taking the job.

While the UJC had to make some very difficult and unpopular decisions under his watch, laying off in essence a quarter of its staff and cutting its budget significantly, it was some of Kanfer’s biggest and most revolutionary ideas that met with the most resistance. 

Kanfer rankled some of the system’s major players with several moves designed to force the system to rethink its overseas funding structure.

Traditionally, the system has had two primary partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which split with World Ort nearly a quarter of all of the money that the federation system raises through its annual campaign. Behind the scenes Kanfer pushed hard for the system to rethink this, pressing the federations to eschew the notion that it should have only two partners because of a historical arrangement. Lack of competition, he said, leads to complacency.

“It has been difficult for the federation system to adapt to the more current challenges of our times,” Kanfer said. “That is probably due to the fact that there are so many needs of the Jewish community that the federations are asked to address and continue to need to be addressed, but they are no longer the only needs of the Jewish people.”

The problem, Kanfer says, is that even though many in the system believe that the structure should be changed — and several federations have taken their own steps in that direction — many of the powerful players in the old federation guard are irrationally protecting the old way of doing business. 

“There tend to be longstanding leadership in the federation system, and much of the money tends to come from the generations that participated in and paid for the great work the federations did on behalf of the ingathering of the Jewish people and Israel, and the building of our communities," he said. "That makes it difficult for them to give up these loyalties."

And while local federations seem open to change, “the national system was often dominated by voices of the old Israel paradigm of any dollars not flowing to Israel and specifically to the Joint and JAFI are somehow going against what the federation is about. That was never really the case, but those voices for too long a period inhibited change,” Kanfer said. “This inhibition became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because we were not changing, we were not raising more dollars, and because we were not raising more dollars, more dollars were not going to the institutions, and that was seen as violating a basic principle. But in turn we were also raising less dollars to send to new and compelling interests. That is not to say that JDC and JAFI are not compelling. They are. But we were not engaging new donors.”

The overseas issue may have been Kanfer’s greatest sore thumb, but he sees reason for optimism in other areas, particularly with the federations’ creation of the Center for Jewish Philanthropy, which is aimed at engaging new donors looking to guide their charitable money, and the creation of Sheatufim, the Israel-based center for civil society that he hopes will engage Israeli and foreign donors.

“One of the things I would hope is that we become more of a fiduciary to help donors fund what they want to fund, combining the notion that if donors come together en mass they can be much more powerful,” he said. “Federations are in a unique position to do that. People have supposed that it was either give to the federations or give on your own, but there is a real sweet spot right in the middle.”

Kanfer is also encouraged by the branding initiative that has led to the new JFNA name. The hope is that every local federation will adopt “Jewish Federations of North America” as part of their names so that it will be easier for Jews who move throughout the country to find their local federations.

“There is the old joke that if you are on a desert Island, the federation will find you. But that is not true of our new donors. I think there is nice traction on federation branding, but it will take a while for all federations to catch on,” he said. “You have the beginnings of engagement of a broader community, a much more active young leadership group and the beginnings of the Center for Jewish Philanthropy. Will that be carried forward, or will naysayers who see either as a threat or see a limited pie world kill it?”

Kanfer also is hopeful that the Jewish Federations’ new CEO, Jerry Silverman, will be able to carry forth many of the changes that his leadership team set in motion. The early returns of opinion show that people inside the federation system and major private donors in the foundation world have bought into Silverman as a change agent. 

“Change from the outside [can be] just screaming and bra-burning, but Jerry has built a position of strength,” he said. Silverman has developed a cache of trust within the private philanthropy world through his work in turning the Foundation for Jewish Camp into a major force in the Jewish nonprofit world. Now he is building buy-in from the federations, Kanfer said. “He is a road warrior. He traveled everywhere [to meet with local federation leaders] and people liked that. If there was any message I got across it is that we needed change. Now ask me in a year if it happened.”

For now this might be the most vocal you will see Kanfer on federation matters. He is not even sure if he will attend upcoming executive meetings.

“I always believed in giving new leadership a chance,” he said. “I am not a believer in hangers on. And I know there are people who think that they should be making decisions forever…. I am taking a little break from the system.”

Kanfer is ramping up his private family foundation, the Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation, with the help of his two daughters. In recent months, he said, the foundation has become significantly involved in the Joshua Venture and the Makom Chadash shared space for Jewish nonprofits. And rumors at the recent Jewish Funders Network conference in Phoenix suggested that the foundation could become a player in providing growth funding for second stage startups.

Kanfers said he will continue to give money to the federations — but he will not stand for a status quo if it is not working. 

“I am very committed to the unrestricted giving the federation stands for,” he said. "On an international basis, I am interested in seeing real needs met. I would still prefer to go through the federation, but I am not necessarily willing to go through federation formulas.”

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