The North American federation system this week got a glimpse of the vision it has long been seeking.
In an address Monday to the United Jewish Communities board of trustees, CEO Stephen Hoffman presented a vigorous plan to overhaul the federation umbrella group, which has been under intense scrutiny over the four years of its existence about its purpose, vision and structure.
Among his goals, he said, is for the UJC to become “the smartest place on earth about solutions to local and global Jewish issues.”
His message came just before the UJC Delegate Assembly approved the 2003-2004 budget of $38.3 million, a 9.5 percent reduction from the previous year.
Cost-cutting measures include eliminating the federation umbrella’s university programs division and Trust for Jewish Philanthropy, along with deep cuts in its Campaign/Financial Resource Development and Israel Overseas departments.
The budget decrease translates into an across-the-board 9.5 percent cut in the dues local federations pay to the federation umbrella organization.
The reduction is part of Hoffman’s plan to streamline the system and a response to the complaints by many federations about the UJC’s high operating cost in pressing economic and political times.
Critics from local federations have also cited the system’s failure to engage them and provide them with critical services along with its inability to garner sufficient funds for the UJC’s overseas agencies, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Hoffman’s vision, which was greeted with enthusiasm, even from some of the system’s greatest critics, comes after working with prominent outside consultants from McKinsey & Company and Atid Consulting to survey 200 federation professionals and volunteers for their views.
The plan is a broad overhaul of the system to fix its problems and keep up with changing Jewish communities at a time of intense global needs.
“As some of you know, there’s been a continuing debate about what we’re going to be when we grow up, with lots of family members giving us advice,” Hoffman said as he headlined his Powerpoint presentation to the trustees.
He then described seemingly irreconcilable views within the UJC that have stunted its growth: Should it serve as a mere trade association or exert a leadership role in the national federation system? Should its support for federations’ fund-raising campaigns be bolstered or shut down?
Hoffman seemed to leave those questions aside with a vision he pared down to three general “areas of focus.” UJC should be, he said: a “vehicle for global Jewish responsibility,” an engine of innovation and an organization that must strengthen the federations.
Asked if his vision answers elemental questions about the UJC, Hoffman told JTA in an extensive interview following the meeting, “Partly. We’re putting a stake in the ground.”
“We’re saying we’re going to lead. We’re not going to just follow,” he said. “I guess I’m trying to break away from all those questions” and “escape from the conventional frameworks that others may have been trying to impose on us in the past by saying what we’re going to be and this is what you’re going to look to us to do.”
Among the key points Hoffman outlined:
The UJC will “revamp” overseas and domestic allocations with “oversight to ensure that allocations are based on priorities, not history.” The UJC will rely more on “collaboration than compliance” in determining federations’ overseas allocations. It will “rethink and reconfigure the nature of the relationship with overseas partners.”
Although Hoffman himself did not elaborate on what he meant, some sources say these statements seem to refer to the longtime 75-25 split in overseas allocations in favor of the Jewish Agency, which handles immigration and absorption in Israel.
With increasing humanitarian needs abroad, it could mean a push to route more funds to the JDC, which provides relief and welfare abroad. Others say the real issue should not be examining or changing the split, but raising significantly more money for overseas needs.
UJC’s “old models are fraying around the edges,” and don’t necessarily serve “communities of the future,” such as those in the South and West.
The UJC’s research and development department will challenge “basic assumptions about how we raise money,” such as engaging “mega-donors” and enhancing the UJC’s in-house consulting staff.
The UJC will strengthen federations by working to “achieve economies of scale in a cost-pressured environment.” It will strive to engage local leadership more intensely and provide them with “intensive, high-impact consulting.”
The UJC will recruit and retain a top team of professionals. It will change the organization’s culture toward a “customer-focused and impact-focused organization.”
The room of trustees appeared to eagerly support Hoffman’s plan.
“I think that you have set the framework, if not the groundwork, for a very positive moving forward, recognizing that the system we had before cannot be the system we have now,” said Shoshana Cardin of Baltimore, a veteran federation leader who has recently been an outspoken critic of UJC.
“Kol hakavod on the work you’ve done and the direction you’ve given us,” Cardin told the meeting via telephone, using the Hebrew phrase to give kudos to Hoffman.
Richard Wexler of Chicago, a member of the UJC budget committee, agreed.
“Yesterday was an important first step in a process that will lead to a real vision and focused plan for UJC,” he said.
Getting further input from a broader base of federation leadership is “going to be the critical next step I think to make any plan viable.”
But some supporters expressed concern over whether the vision would be fulfilled, with Hoffman slated to leave his post in just one year.
Even he noted the challenges, for example, of recruiting talent with his departure approaching.
“Some people don’t have the guts to think about the future without Hoffman,” he told the trustees, calling his three- year term “a reality we face.”
However, in the interview with JTA, he was more optimistic.
“I don’t believe UJC is about any one person,” he said. He spoke of the continuity in lay leadership with Robert Goldberg of Cleveland, who in November will move from chairman of the executive committee to chairman of the board, and Morton Plant of Baltimore, who will move from treasurer to chairman of the executive committee.
And he also pointed to the recent hiring of some UJC professionals, including Robert Hyfler, a Jewish federation professional for more than 20 years who was named UJC senior vice president of research and development.
In the meantime, the board of trustees moved to address one of the loudest concerns among federation leaders: the underfunding of overseas needs.
The board of trustees passed a resolution Monday recommending that federations disburse all of the money saved from their dues reduction to the federation system’s overseas pot.
The UJC was formed, in part, to reverse declining allocations from federations to overseas needs.
While the UJC has somewhat staunched the drop in allocations, federations are still falling short of UJC recommendations.
And the issue has resulted in increasing frustration by the overseas partners, with the JDC circumventing the UJC to solicit individual federations directly.
“The savings on the UJC budget represent a meaningful resource for meeting” overseas needs, which “have not been adequately addressed for many years,” James Tisch, UJC’s outgoing chairman of the board, wrote to the board of trustees in a June 9 memo.
The memo urged federations to allocate half of their savings to overseas needs, but the board went further, approving an amended resolution increasing the recommendation to 100 percent of federation savings.
But some federation leaders doubted the resolution would have any effect. One said past non-binding recommendations related to overseas allocations did not produce any results. Another leader noted that most federations had already determined their budgets, based on the dues reduction, and therefore were not likely to change them.
In addition, it seems unlikely that federations, many of whose campaigns are struggling and for whom the budget was cut, will have extra money to put back into the pot.
But according to Hoffman, “This is not Henry Ford’s Model-T factory where you can have any color you want as long as it’s black.
“We have federations in lots of different circumstances,” he said. “We have enough federations that are having good years” that they can “do a mitzvah for the needs overseas.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.