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The $23 million that were raised for the Hurricane Katrina relief fund may seem a drop in the ocean of Jewish philanthropy, but for the United Jewish Communities - which headed the campaign - it was a sign of victory. "This was a classic expression of the reason we have the UJC," says a proud Howard Rieger, president and CEO of the United Jewish Federation, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations and communities. "There is no way the Jewish community could have been so responsive without our organization."
The hurricane relief campaign was indeed a big success. More than half of the money raised was given directly to the umbrella organization - not through the federations - and the UJC proved its ability to mobilize professional personnel and emergency resources to make a difference on the ground, in hurricane-hit Louisiana.
Yet the mere fact that six years after its foundation, the UJC still has to prove to the Jewish community the need for its existence tells a lot about the struggle facing the organization.
More than 3,600 delegates will arrive on Sunday at the Toronto Metro Center in Canada for the General Assembly (GA) of the UJC. Traditionally, this is considered the biggest annual gathering of Jewish activists on the federation level. Characteristically, the delegates will try to figure out how to deal with the growing needs of the Jewish communities in an era of downsizing of government-funded social services; what to do with the inherent tension between the need for overseas funds - to help Jews in Israel and the Former Soviet Union - and the feeling of the communities that they are not retaining enough money to provide for their own services; and how to stay in the Jewish fund-raising race in an ever-growing competitive environment.
When President George W. Bush convened a meeting of all the major groups raising funds to help the hurricane victims, the UJC was the only Jewish group represented in the room. In a way, this validated the status of UJC as a major player in organized Jewish life. But the real contest takes place in the fundraising arena.
The 2004 figures, published last month in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, placed the UJC in a prestigious 42nd place among the list of 400 top American charities.
Yet, this isn't such good news.
In 2003, the UJC held a much higher rank: 25th place. Since then, funds raised by the organization decreased by almost 27 percent.
Jewish activists say there is no cause for alarm. The 2003 numbers included the Israel Emergency Fund, which was established during the intifada and which received over $100 million that year. Once the emergency campaign was over, the overall funds shrank to their pre-intifada amount. According to sources in the UJC, the total 2005 annual campaign figures should show $870 million - $20 million more than in 2004.
But whether the fundraising figures presented in the Chronicle of Philanthropy reflect the true picture or not, at best, the annual campaign of the UJC has remained at a steady level at a time when general giving to charities in the US is booming and has risen by more than 10% in the past year.
"The annual campaign is stale," says Gary Tobin, director of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco. According to Tobin, the problem is not with the UJC, but rather with the giving trends of the Jewish population, which are shifting away from the annual campaign - once the flagship of Jewish fundraising - towards endowments and designated, earmarked donations.
This trend has been going on for more than two decades. Jewish philanthropists, who want to know where there money is going and want to be part of the process, prefer to give to specific projects and not to the general account of the federation or the UJC.
The UJC is not unaware of this trend. After the successful Israel emergency campaign, the organization this year launched Operation Promise - a three-year campaign to raise $160 million to help the Jews of the FSU and Ethiopia. This was one way to break through the stalemate of the annual campaign and explore new frontiers. The idea behind it was for the Jewish community to be committed to the annual campaign at a certain level, while at the same time increasing donations through a new, specified cause.
Ironically, however, this is exactly what the UJC was supposed to prevent.
One of the main aims in establishing the umbrella organization was to end multiple fundraising from the Jewish community and unify federation and overseas campaigns. What has emerged is quite different: American Jews are facing multiple fundraising campaigns once again.
"It is true that we would like to see one campaign, but everything in life has a bottom line," says Rieger, who explains that the "bottom line" is money. "The fact is that there is more Jewish money out there, and we cannot rest on the laurels of one annual campaign."
This Jewish money is looking for other avenues, both in the federation system and in the Jewish organizations. While the UJC fundraising is stable, other Jewish groups are leaping forward. Most notable is the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, which has grown from $17 million in 2000 to $47 million in 2005. AIPAC, which has also doubled its membership, is appealing to Jewish activists who feel the need to promote Israel in the political arena. But AIPAC is not the only organization that has ballooned in recent years. The Jewish National Fund, with its Israel-environmental agenda, has become a magnet for American Jewish donors. And Chabad has also managed to raise significant sums - last year more than $35 million to its FSU arm.
The UJC's need to initiate new campaigns also derives from the continuing erosion in the overseas allocations of the organizations. While the annual campaigns have raised a fairly steady flow of funds, the money sent overseas has decreased gradually. This is felt mainly by the Jewish Agency, the principal beneficiary of the overseas allocations, which was forced to decrease its annual budget and to forgo new projects due to lack of funding.
One of the main issues the Toronto GA will need to deal with next week is setting new guidelines for overseas allocations, to secure funding for the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
While the need for sending funds overseas - for education and human services in the FSU, for immigrant absorption in Israel or for Ethiopian Jews waiting to make aliya - is widely recognized, there are also growing needs inside the American community.
With government funding for social programs shrinking and healthcare costs soaring, the Jewish communities need more and more funds to treat the elderly and other needy members of the community.
IS THE UJC doing enough to fight these government cuts? A Washington Jewish activist in social affairs claims that the UJC is not aggressive enough in lobbying Congress and the administration to overturn proposed cuts in social services. While other Jewish groups are mobilizing their supporters to prevent the cuts, the UJC's lobbying arm is dealing only with one aspect - the proposed changes in Medicaid.
"We're a small operation," Rieger explains, "and we decided to focus on Medicaid, where we can make a difference. We can't be all over the waterfront."
Some Jewish sources in Washington point to another possible reason for the limited social lobbying activity of the UJC. They claim that the organization is closer now than ever before to the Republicans and is thus reluctant to confront the Bush administration. Last month, the organization appointed a Republican activist, William Daroff, to head its lobbying operation in Washington. This was seen by many in the Jewish community as another step towards a conservative agenda, one which may be more suitable for the ever-growing presence of Republican Jewish donors in the UJC.
But the UJC insists there is no shift in its agenda, and that as the main provider of social services to the Jewish community, it is as concerned as anyone else with the possible cuts.