Charles Bronfman calls for UJC overhaul

Billionaire philanthropist: Collective responsibility by the US Jewish community "has been shot down."

charles bronfman 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
charles bronfman 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The umbrella organization of American Jewish federations needs a sweeping overhaul, according to billionaire philanthropist Charles Bronfman. "I believe every city should be able to do its own thing, in its own city," Bronfman said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week, as the UJC's annual General Assembly came to a close in Nashville, Tennessee. The UJC serves as the organizing umbrella body of 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent Jewish communities across North America. It primarily serves as these federations' institution for collective action, with duties including lobbying in Washington for philanthropy-friendly tax legislation, funding the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee and responding to emergencies in the US, Israel and elsewhere. In place of the bureaucratic body, Bronfman suggested a "very small body" of "very intelligent" executives who come together around two to three national objectives - and that's it. The rest he would leave to the individual communities. The GA, Bronfman said, "speaks for itself." "You look at the attendees and at the program and you can figure out what's happened," he said. "They have to change the formula, but the question they are stuck with is how do they change it?" Bronfman acknowledged the great difficulty in implementing his proposed reform. "Each of these organizations, and my heart goes out to them, have their own bureaucracy," said Bronfman. "To [turn] that battleship around and entice them to suddenly do things that are dramatically different" would be very hard. "Collective responsibility" by the American Jewish community as a whole, Bronfman believes, "has been shot down." Accompanied by Jeffrey Solomon, president of Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, Bronfman spoke to the Post in his office in Manhattan. According to Solomon, collective responsibility on the part of American Jewry comes through only in moments of crisis. "The best year for collective responsibility was 1948, but when things are not in a moment of crisis or opportunity, it no longer captures the imagination of people." To try to fundraise through notions of collective responsibility in years without crises, Solomon said, is a "failed strategy." Though he believes in the idea, the marketplace has shown otherwise, said Solomon, who has a beautifully crafted stone in his office that reads, "all Jews are responsible for one another." "I believe in it, but anybody who ignores the marketplace does so at his own peril, and when you go from one million donors to 540,000, the marketplace is telling you something," he said. The future of philanthropy lies with foundations, the two agreed. "People want to follow their money, and the old organizations like the federations, unless they can start showing people that you have a program, people will pay their Jewish taxes and that's it," believes Bronfman. "They will pay to federations like the Protestants pay to United Way - a respectable amount but not in proportion to their wealth." Therefore, the "old organizations" need a dramatic change to cope with a very different world, said Bronfman. For one, the federations' massive annual campaign, which raises the bulk of their annual budget, cannot be the "be all and end all." The annual campaign has been the engine that drives the social work of the federation system, with 155 federations across North America raising some $1 billion each year to address urgent needs in local communities, Israel and in countries around the world. "They would need to say, 'we don't give a damn about it, we care about programming we can max out on,'" said Bronfman, who served as the first chairman of the UJC. But to do that would mean "losing a lot of sleep for many nights. Unless you have a lay group of people who will be on your head, who will be smacking you around, so that it hurts more that way than the other way, you will only go so far. One of the problems with all businesses is the day you get complacent and yawn; then the game is over." Bronfman recalls a lesson his father used to tell him: "Businesses and brands go two ways, up or down, and if you're level you are going down. Something has to give," he believes, "and we are the kind of mavericks who can help it along." For his part, UJC president Howard Rieger noted that the UJC has already undergone structural changes to deal with the new reality of more private, designated philanthropy. He cited the 1999 merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the national United Jewish Appeal and the smaller United Israel Appeal. "The UJC was overhauled," he said. "Whatever happened in the first years since, we've gotten well past that and done things that no single federation could do." For example, following Israel's war with Lebanon last year, the UJC not only raised $360 million at the federation level, but worked with Israeli authorities and organizations on the ground to identify the needs and allocate the money, said Rieger. "And we didn't charge one penny [of overhead] for it." Rieger also pointed to the devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans in August 2005. The UJC entered the city in advance of the storm, raised $30m., paid the local federation's salaries for a year and is still there working to sustain the community, Rieger said. "The reality is we are 60 years beyond [the notion of a lack of collective responsibility]," said Rieger. "Collective responsibility has become a matter of commitment, a negotiated result as opposed to a mandated result. We can be proud about where we are today." Rieger pointed to a new operational strategy adopted by the UJC in June designed to bolster campaigns and define where the UJC is heading. Rieger spoke to the Post following a meeting of presidents and executives of federations across the country. One project discussed was a benchmarking evaluation system that could measure the operations and their effectiveness in an initial batch of 40 federations to determine the "impact we can make and change the way we do business," said Rieger. With projects like Reboot, Slingshot, 21/64, a new chaired professorship at Brandeis University and birthright israel, Bronfman is trying to invest in Jewish innovation. Bronfman and Solomon spoke to the Post as the deadline for the Charles Bronfman Prize draws near. The prize, now in its fourth incarnation, is a humanitarian award created and endowed by his children - Ellen Bronfman Hauptman and Andrew Hauptman together with Stephen Bronfman and Claudine Blondin Bronfman - in honor of their father's 70th birthday. The winner, chosen by a high-profile panel of judges, is awarded $100,000. "This reflects a gift from his children, but is also a recognition of the next generation of the Bronfman family of what Charles tried to do with his life, and what they want to do with their lives, which is probably best present a parent can have from his or her children," said Solomon.