Neither Dead Nor Dying: A View from the Cheap Seats

I headed to the Holy Land to attend the General Assembly for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), where I intend to learn more about the Diaspora’s relationship with Israel, gain insight into beliefs about the efficacy of 2-state solutions, and maybe even come within a hundred yards of somebody important. I’ll also likely spend some time at the business end of the Federation Kool Aid (bug juice?) hose, discussing best practices, sharing challenges, and participating in cheers for the continued, strong role that Federations must play in the future. I purposefully wanted to compose this before falling under any GA spell, while my sentiments are still untainted and palpable.

Imbued with the privilege of sitting down with countless community benefactors over many years, not exclusively for the Federation but also other wonderful agencies, I have always approached the task of solicitation with a curiosity about people’s philanthropic histories and beliefs. Now, as the Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s 2019 Community Campaign Chairman, I have an even better excuse to hear the stories that illuminate people’s beliefs about the capacity of our local and global agencies’ capacity to meet their and future generations’ needs. While my research doesn’t hold up to scientific standards (I know that because I actually have a master’s degree in science), my observations leave me keenly aware of some common themes.

While there is not unanimity on this, many people at least question the viability of the federated giving model, and some even predict the utter demise of our Federations. There may have been a time when I might have agreed with those sentiments, but through epiphanies gleaned from my cheap seats on boards and committees, deeper understandings of the power of community, and years-long study of what I call the human condition, I am more convinced than ever that the model and agencies driving it (including Federations and the United Way) must continue to play starring roles in sustaining us through the generations. Don’t forget this is pre-Kool Aid.

Here’s another thing I continue to witness: We love to focus on what’s not working the way we’d like it to, and we have long memories of times that either an agency professional or volunteer steward may have been less than delicate with our feelings. Yes, many people have contributed through the Federation because they felt obliged, it was merely a family rule, or they developed an organic love of the philanthropic opportunity. But some were put in uncomfortable situations – maybe experiencing public embarrassment or guilt from peer pressure – to step up to the community plate. Wounds from distasteful experiences in the past don’t heal easily, and those memories can contribute to justifications for sending money elsewhere.

Admittedly, the community fundraising process has been less than perfect, often ungraceful. Solicitors have never been adequately trained to either elegantly articulate the Federation’s value proposition, or to sensitively deal with the process of asking people to reach into their pockets. Nevertheless, campaigns succeeding, on some level because older generations had the Federation commitment in their DNA. Younger generations not so much, perhaps not at all.

Needless to say, the conventional methodology of raising capital through the Federation needs to die if Federations want to avoid an existential crisis. And change they must, because the needs of the community are vast, and perhaps the most important ones may be unapparent to the community itself.

Many stakeholders consider Federations to be the aggregate sum of the programs, initiatives, and agencies they support. They help underwrite education, food, shelter, camps, elderly and sick care, security, a healthy Israel, disaster relief, etc. At least some of these impact areas will fit snugly within an individual’s value system, but the odds are that not all of them will. The attractive options we have to narrowly direct our giving to very specific causes, particularly du rigueur with younger generations, is a key contributor to the belief in a dying federated model.

However, as compelling and meaningful a charitable organization’s mission is to a giver, one key need is probably overlooked. And that is the unquestionably vital need that people have to simply commune, in real time and in real space, with each other. Face-to-face socializing is now known to be a profound factor in physical health and mental well-being, whereas loneliness and isolation are literally life-threatening. Digital communities, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn, aren’t merely poor surrogates for live socialization, they’re probably counterproductive to the types of interactions that nurture and sustain us.

And that is what federated giving does; it provides access to myriad opportunities for people to interact according to their own tastes, needs, and desires. By employing professionals and recruiting committees of our community peers to identify opportunities and assess risks, resources are deployed to engage as many people as possible in communal activity. Doors are kept open, lights remain lit, and especially in Minnesota, the heat stays on. A philanthropic portfolio that narrowly focuses on specific impacts risks missing a major, compelling need to provide the broadest of communal access. And I submit that this need is worthy of staying on every donor’s radar.

In my fifth year as an involved (some of my co-collaborators might say too involved, but at least I try to be entertaining) Minneapolis Jewish Federation board member, I can comfortably say that we understand what’s working and where there are opportunities for operational improvement. One thing is for certain – there isn’t a person around who entirely agrees with the current process, including administration, fundraising, and allocation decisions. Unanimity is, in fact, an unachievable goal, and nobody ought to consider that a great Federation is one that is slam dunk congruent with their individual beliefs.

It just so happens that the Federation is rife with humans – professionals and volunteers – who enjoy disagreements, occasionally make mistakes, and struggle sometimes to reach consensus. But, I can also state with unwavering confidence that we all care deeply about our mission to be community builders and watchdogs, putting in heaps of time and energy as expressions of compassion. The hubris and elitism that some claimed to have existed within the agency’s walls and boardroom aren’t anything I have witnessed or experienced. And you can trust that our agency professionals aren’t in it for the money, but that’s a matter for another discussion.

Both the federated model and the Federations themselves are cutting wide swaths of immense value throughout our community. If you don’t feel like you have a working knowledge of either, I encourage you to invite your campaign solicitor to your philanthropy table and ask questions until you see how support through the Federations aligns with your own goals and values. I suspect that with deeper understanding will come warmth and appreciation, and hopefully a portion of your charitable giving.

About the author:

Howie Milstein is a self-proclaimed board and agency irritant who likes to wholeheartedly and lightheartedly challenge the conventional thinking and paradigms that prevent us from being the best possible stewards of community well-being. He has held positions on the boards of the Sabes JCC and Minneapolis Jewish Federation, including a couple years as President of the Sabes JCC. He is currently a Board Member and 2019 Community Campaign Chair for the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and Co-Chair of the Twin Cities Jewish Metropolitan Council, helping to conjure up ways to increase collaboration within agencies without regard to geographic boundaries.