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Boosting Funds for Overseas Needs Remains a Challenge for Federations

November 2, 2005
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When Jewish communal leaders gather for the annual meeting of the North American Jewish federations next month, one thorny issue will persist — how to allocate funds for international needs. When the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of federations, was created six years ago, the move was partially aimed at boosting federation dollars to its overseas partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which operates aliyah and Zionist education worldwide, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides relief and welfare for Jews abroad.

With the UJC came the Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee, referred to as ONAD, intended to establish broad-based participation in determining overseas allocations and inspire a new sense of responsibility.

But ONAD was mired in bureaucracy and widely considered a failure. Howard Rieger, the former president of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh declared it so when he took the helm of the UJC last year.

While the federations’ annual campaign, which tops $800 million, increased by 4 percent since 2000, dollars overseas have dropped by more than 4.5 percent since 2001, albeit at a less drastic rate than before the merger, according to an Oct. 11 report of the ONAD review process by UJC’s executive committee chair, Morton Plant of Baltimore.

After a year of brainstorming and review of the process, federation leaders are slated to determine a new plan at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, which is being held Nov. 13-Nov. 16 in Toronto.

This will be one of many issues explored at the G.A., which will hold workshops on subjects from public speaking and “energizing your e-philanthropy” to finding life balance and promoting leadership opportunities for women.

The opening plenary, “Celebrating Our Accomplishments,” will trumpet such federation achievements as raising $2 million for victims of Hurricane Katrina to aiding the Jews of Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.

In fact, the G.A. comes soon after the Sept. 16 launch of Operation Promise, a plan to raise $160 million over three years to revitalize Jewish youth and aid the Jewish elderly in the former Soviet Union, and to help bring the remaining Jews of Ethiopia to Israel and absorb those currently living there.

Operation Promise already has raised $25 million in pledges to date, according to UJC spokesman Glenn Rosenkrantz.

It follows earlier attempts at a campaign to absorb Ethiopians in Israel that were ultimately overshadowed by the intifada and related fund-raising priorities.

But some suggest the new campaign is just filling in where ONAD failed.

“There are significant portions of Operation Promise that would not have required a separate initiative had federations been wholly responsive to a succession of ONAD recommendations” on overseas needs, said Richard Wexler of Chicago, UJC vice chair and head of the Jewish Agency’s North American Council.

Meanwhile, proposals for a new overseas allocations system are still circulating, with everyone weighing in, from the federations to their overseas partners — a fact that is inspiring some optimism.

“While the proposal is still a work in progress, I believe that anytime we depend more on democracy of the marketplace rather than top-down planning, we are more likely to obtain a positive result,” said Steven Klinghoffer of Metrowest, N.J., the immediate past chair of ONAD.

Sources say early drafts indicate a modified return to the old days — when the Jewish Agency and JDC negotiated their own split in funding of UJC’s overseas dollars. That split has long favored the Jewish Agency by a three to one margin. But federations also have a reserve of elective dollars, for which the JDC has increasingly been campaigning directly.

While overall funding to general overseas needs has decreased, federations have increased their elective funding overseas, often creating special projects with overseas partners.

The top priority for UJC’s overseas partners is to ensure they receive a minimum amount of federation dollars.

That’s particularly on the minds of Jewish Agency leaders, who were meeting this week in Israel for their board of governors meetings.

At those meetings, which began Monday, the board was expected to vote on a $285 million budget — a $20 million reduction in overhead and programming from last year, said Jay Sarver of St. Louis, the Jewish Agency’s budget and finance chair.

That’s due to less funding from U.S. grants and fewer federation dollars in the face of inflation and currency costs, Sarver said.

The Jewish Agency receives some $140 million from the federations, Sarver said. It is expecting a $2 million increase from federations in 2006 after a $6 million decrease in 2005.

Referring to the new overseas agreement, Sarver said, “What everyone wants to get out of this is a renewed commitment on the part of the American community to fulfill its overseas responsibilities.”

“The issue here is what is the responsibility, how is that responsibility going to be implemented and who’s going to ensure its implementation.”

Steven Schwager, JDC’s executive vice president, agrees.

“We’re interested in a system where everyone bears their fair share of overseas responsibility.”

Appearing to support an old model of negotiation, Schwager said that for 60 years, a handful of JDC and Jewish Agency representatives successfully negotiated their overseas funds from the federation system.

At the same time, Schwager said ONAD bore some positive results, like the creation of overseas committees among federations and increased awareness of overseas needs.

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