March 16, 2018; Forward
The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) brings together a network of 148 local federations which raise and allocate more than $2 billion annually to increase their collective power and impact while maximizing cooperation and collaboration. Like many national organizations, their model seeks to build a common voice while still allowing each member to reflect local needs and interests. But JFNA’s recent announcement that it was summarily terminating a decades-old collaborative effort is a sign that this local-national model may be in trouble, a sign that may be of interest to other similar networks.
JFNA has spent decades in an effort to create an ongoing mechanism that would productively connect local federations to a group of national Jewish organizations. In 2012, it redesigned the effort under the title of the National Federation/Agency Alliance “to bring together seven national Jewish agencies and the Jewish federation network into a common space, promoting deeper relationships and creating synergy among them. The national agencies that comprise the Alliance engage in critical work to build capacity and support the work of federations and their local affiliates. In addition, these organizations help to advance the federation system’s goals on a national, continental and international stage.”
This week, we learned that this effort is failing. In a letter to its constituency, JFNA said, “The pool of funding available continues to erode as more individual communities seek to manage their own decisions…our historical model is no longer sustainable.”
Of JFNA’s 148 members, only 28 remained willing to commit support and some funding to the Alliance. When the New York Federation withdrew from the Alliance, it reduced the funding pool by more than a third. While the Federations of JFNA allocate over $2 billion annually, they saw the work of the Alliance as important enough to create a pool that reached $4 million before the New York Federation’s withdrawal.
The Forward sees this decision as evidence of a larger crack in the JFNA model, which has seen many of its member organizations struggle.
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The discontinuation of the program…comes amid a broader breakdown of the joint fundraising model on which the federation system was built. As wealthy donors demand more control over their donations, local federations are less willing to hand over funding decisions to a national body. The resulting disorder can be a drain on the resources of charities seeking funds.
Mark Hetfield, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), told the Forward, “Donors are not really interested in having organizations make their philanthropic decisions for them. It certainly is a bad sign for collective action.”
JFNA’s decision left the organizations that had been funded through the Alliance with only a few months to a develop a new funding strategy and mechanisms to work locally. According to Hetfield,
We were counting on that funding for June. And now we’re going to have to ask individual federations for support. And that’s obviously going to take away resources and make us spend more of our resources asking for money rather than carrying out our mission.
But the value of the Alliance was greater than its grants; membership served as a sort of “seal of approval from JFNA” that helped raise money from other funders. The loss of that support system, Hetfield said, was also harmful.
If the Forward is correct, the world of organizational networks like JFNA is in for some tough times.—Martin Levine