Metro Views: Federations in trouble

We once thought of federations as only address for donating dollars.

US israel 88 (photo credit: )
US israel 88
(photo credit: )
Tooth paste and toilet paper. This is what we have come to here in one of the wealthiest Jewish communities in the US - Bergen County, New Jersey. UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey will hold an "Economic Crisis Resource Fair" next Sunday. In addition to sessions on bankruptcy, home foreclosure and credit counseling, there are, shall we say, "commodities" drives. We are asked to provide basic necessities: toiletries, paper towels, toilet paper, tooth paste, dental floss and diapers. These items cannot be purchased with food stamps, which is a US government subsidy for the poor. That's us, here in Bergen, where the estimated median household income in 2007 was $80,482, compared to the New Jersey state median of $67,035. This is not a total surprise. There have always been pockets of Jewish poverty. But they were small and hard to see. Now, add the American mortgage crisis, the stock market crash, the Bernard Madoff financial scandal and the lack of confidence - the fear - that keeps people from spending because many of us know someone who lost his job or her house. This time last year, these were the donors to the local food banks; now we are providing toiletries for our own. While we have been known to open our hearts and our wallets, we may be in for a rude awakening. It is not simply that we do not have money, or that we do not believe in charitable giving, but that we don't automatically give to federations anymore. WE ONCE thought of federations as a way of bonding with Israel, and as the single address for donating dollars to an array of Jewish causes at home and abroad. Some saw federation fund-raising as an exercise in Jewish community building, a means of affiliating people who otherwise were disengaged from Jewish life. (Some say that affiliation-by-checkbook is not really much of an affinity, but that is a discussion for another time.) Now we have alternative choices and pet interests; we have become accustomed to "boutique" and direct giving, either for projects in Israel or the United States. We tend to think of federations for emergencies. Rockets shelling the North? Give to the federation; after all, our local federation here in Northern Jersey is twinned with Nahariya. Our limited view of federations became painfully clear recently when, during a "general" fund-raising campaign, local Jews said they already gave to the federation. They gave during the 2006 Lebanon war; to donors, the distinction between the emergency (shelling in the North) and the general campaign was meaningless. FEDERATIONS, IN GENERAL, don't have much of a relationship with the little guy. Part of this is philanthropy fundamentals, or "Fund-Raising 101." It is easier, more cost-effective for a charitable agency to woo a potential mega-donor than to approach lots of small contributors who think in multiple increments of $18. Despite the dire economic signs last year, the North Jersey federation reportedly was optimistic about fund-raising because its annual major gifts dinner last October raised $263,000 - is a 10 percent increase from the previous year. But it is also roughly the salary of the philanthropy's top professional, according to the federation's tax filings. Any curmudgeon would say that the dinner earned enough to pay that salary for another year, and then what? In December, some 450 volunteers made calls at the federation's annual telethon, known as Super Sunday. They raised $1.1 million from 2,400 donors. The event was touted as a success, but it raised only a small fraction of the federation's also annual revenue. There is also some concern about whether the money will materialize. In federation fund-raising, people make pledges that they may not be able to honor at a later date. By December's end, the North Jersey federation began "reorganizing" by cutting some jobs and turning others into part-time positions. The anecdotal evidence is that across the US some venerated programs have been dramatically cut or "streamlined" into oblivion. The federation system traditionally has depended heavily on about 10% of its donors for 90% of its cash. That's probably fine in the philanthropic world when everyone has money, but it no longer is a realistic option for Jewish federations. In addition, demands are increasing. For many Jews, federations are not the institutions you donate to, but those you seek services from - for instance, looking for information about the free birthright israel trip for your college-age child? Call the federation. Need family counseling? Meals-on-Wheels? Call the federation. Further, as times get tougher, and demands escalate, it is hard to imagine how federations are going to overcome festering grievances that were, to some extent, sidelined when communities - and Israel - were flush. Many federations never fully recovered from tensions over the divisions of funds: between the various streams of Judaism; between Jewish education or cultural/recreational programming at Jewish community centers; between youth trips to Israel or kosher meals for the elderly. These are all valid questions. Some are quite urgent. We need some wisdom and rachmanis now that we have been reduced to appeals for tooth paste and toilet paper.