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Weisband on Mission, Meaning, and Money: How the Joint Distribution Committee Became a Fundraising Innovator

Filed under: U.S. Policy, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:3-4 (Fall 2010)

Organizational change is generally slow. In their 1993 bestseller Reengineering the Corporation, Michael Hammer and James Champy write that “America’s business problem is that it is entering the twenty-first century with companies designed during the nineteenth century to work well in the twentieth. We need something entirely different.”[1]

Their conclusion supports a similar statement by Peter Drucker, who in addition to a career as a prolific author, consultant, and teacher was a self-described “social ecologist”: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”[2]

These assessments can easily be applied to the Jewish organizational world, especially those entities that function in the national and global arenas. Change comes ever so slowly, and only if the leadership has the vision, fortitude, and patience to make it happen. It follows that this is especially difficult when adaptation must be made within the multiple environments in which such organizations operate.

In Mission, Meaning, and Money: How the Joint Distribution Committee Became a Fundraising Innovator, Dr. Mark Rosen of Brandeis University, who teaches in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program and does strategic research and consulting for Jewish organizations, describes the recent organizational and funding transformation within the JDC in an interesting historical and contemporary narrative. JDC leadership strategically initiated and created fundamental cultural change in order to propel the organization to new heights. Rosen notes: “JDC’s fundraising revenue grew from $8 million in 1993 to $120 million in 2007, and JDC’s budget grew from $80 million to $353 million during those same years.”[3]

A Decade of Change

As indicated above, this positive, radical change did not happen overnight nor even from one year to the next. Throughout his narrative, Rosen details the visionary changes that took place within the professional ranks of the organization, resulting in the transformation of the JDC’s board, which in turn catalyzed a significant turnaround in funding and fundraising achievement. This process is summarized in Rosen’s statement: “The past decade has seen significant changes in the way that JDC relates to its board. For 80 years, there were no financial expectations of board members. Now, virtually 100 percent of the board contributes to JDC’s core undesignated funding through the annual campaign. Board members make significant designated gifts and are more highly engaged, working closely with JDC professionals.”[4]

It was at the beginning of that “decade of change,” in the early 1990s, that JDC professional leadership recognized the shifting dynamic in the American Jewish organizational structure. Rosen delineates how the JDC historically received the greater part of its funding through the system that represented the Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), and the United Israel Appeal (UIA). What was shifting, however, were power and funding decisions from the national scene, evolving more and more toward local decision-making in the Federations through project-oriented allocations. Simultaneously, a huge growth in private family foundations was taking place, wherein donors wanted to designate and be involved with specific programs.

Coupled with this new reality was the collapse of the Soviet Union including the emergence of glasnost (openness), and additional regime changes taking place in Eastern Europe and Ethiopia. As a result, the JDC historical mandate to aid local Jewish communities worldwide and provide food and social services began to expand significantly, requiring funding well beyond what the JDC was receiving through the national system.

The problem that faced the JDC was that they were locked into the short end of a 75-25 percent split in the funds coming through the system, with less funds being raised and allocated by Federations.

The solution was based on a two-track approach. First, it was necessary to activate the board, moving it from a culture of red-carpet entitlement to one of involvement, financial responsibility, and ultimately fundraising and fund-giving. Board members willingly gave of themselves, their time, their expertise, and their resources as they came to identify genuinely with the JDC mission. In the words of one board member, they could now say with pride that they contributed “work, wealth, and wisdom.”[5]

The second track called for lay and professional leadership to establish direct relationships with Federations, with specific large donors in coordination with Federations, and with family foundations. This “friend-raising” would prove to pay major new dividends for the JDC as the organization would strategically link donors and their contributions to projects in Israel, Russia, and elsewhere. Donor cultivation became a built-in part of the relationship both before and after the contribution.

Thus began a process that entailed not only a major cultural change within the JDC, but one that at the same time helped spark a large, ongoing ripple effect in the national scene. Even today, Jewish leaders in North America are responding differently with far greater local initiative to contemporary funding opportunities in Israel and within Jewish communities in other countries.

Drucker could easily have been the JDC’s consultant:

“Usually, there is no lack of ideas in non-profit organizations. What’s more often lacking is the willingness and the ability to convert those ideas into effective results. What is needed is an innovative strategy. The successful non-profit organization is organized for the new – organized to perceive opportunities. Innovative organizations systematically look both outside and inside for clues to innovative opportunities.[6]”

An Incomplete Approach

For the individual interested in the JDC, and for one seeking an example of how a major national organization has been able to reengineer its board and resource development, Rosen has provided an excellent account and “how to” primer that is well worth reading and studying. Much can be gleaned from these 177 pages, which include a very good index plus some thirteen introductory pages offering a JDC overview.

However, the researcher and student of the contemporary era who may wish to understand the transformation of the “new JDC” within the totality of its environment, that is, the context of related national and international dynamics, is left to ask questions regarding the parallel perspectives of the leaders of: (1) the former UJA and UIA before they merged into the UJC, (2) the United Jewish Communities (UJC, now the Jewish Federations of North America, JFNA), and (3) the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). In both historical and contemporary terms, through cooperation and conflict, these perspectives are necessary if one is to comprehend the era as a totality and appreciate the changes that took place within the JDC.

Time has shown, at least so far, that while the JDC’s strength has increased, the fortunes of the other national entities have decreased, as have those of the Jewish Agency. Is this perhaps a case of the “survival of the fittest,” or is it truly an instance of visionary leadership able to foresee a changing environment and prevailing while others may be failing?

This is where lacunae in Rosen’s study, resulting from an incomplete interviewing process, must be further examined. In short, forty-two JDC professional staff members are interviewed, sixteen JDC board members, and sixteen professional staff members of Federations representing twelve different communities. But no interviewing of former UJA or UIA leaders was done to gain their premerger perspectives; only two UJC professionals and no lay leaders were interviewed; and two Jewish Agency professionals in Israel were interviewed while excluding the input from key Jewish Agency leaders in the United States and public figures in Israel.

To demonstrate the seriousness of such omission in the study, on page 69 Rosen refers to the withholding of support for a new UJC funding plan by the then chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, and informs the reader of his reasoning. The reader is left to ask why this individual was not interviewed, nor others like him, so that Rosen’s analysis could be more comprehensive and thus credible.

Another result of a lack of comparable data from a better balance of interviewing is that Rosen is given in spots to some hyperbole, thus leaving the reader with an incorrect impression. An example occurs on page 65 (see below), part of a section (60-67) that describes a Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland-JDC initiative, a successful one in the face of general Federation dissatisfaction with UJA and Jewish Agency funding streams. To the credit of the JDC and Cleveland, they built an important new program with increased communal involvement, one better attuned to the emerging American philanthropic values of hands-on involvement, communication, and transparency.

However, while appropriately extolling the success of the new project, Rosen’s incomplete interviewing process results in certain hyperbole that “Donors from Cleveland who visited Israel on a mission were no longer limited to driving past a federation-funded building on a bus tour” (65). The excitement of the new Cleveland-JDC relationship, its inspirational and practical achievement, undoubtedly led an interviewee to recount current personal, dynamic “mission moments” in the singular context of a particular JDC staffer. However, had comparative interviews been done with Jewish Agency personnel regarding similar mission stops, the author would have learned about emotional and caring visits to youth villages and absorption centers, and Federation-Jewish Agency experiences in Israel and abroad built around their community-to-community Partnership 2000 relationships.

Rosen, again, has published an important book describing the JDC’s cultural transformation that should be read by lay and professional leaders in the Jewish communal system, as well as academics, students, and researchers interested in this field. At the same time, this writer recommends that it be read alongside other articles and books that provide a comprehensive environmental picture.

The late Michael Hammer, an author, professor, and consultant who was engaged personally and professionally with the Jewish communal system, clarifies the importance of this approach:

“An organization is more than a set of products and services. It is also a human society, and like all societies, it nourishes particular forms of culture, “company cultures.” Every company has its own language, its own version of history (its myths), and its own heroes and villains (its legends), both historical and contemporary. The whole flourishing tangle serves to confirm old-timers, and to induct newcomers, in the corporation’s distinctive identity and its particular norms of behavior. In myriad ways, formal and informal, it tells them what is okay and what is not.[7]”

As Hammer himself might have paraphrased a classic Jewish teaching, Rosen has provided a valuable study of the JDC, its language, history, and culture; now go and study.


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[1] Michael Hammer and James Champy, Reengineering the Corporation (New York: Harper Business, 1993), 30.


[3] Mark I. Rosen, Mission, Meaning, and Money: How the Joint Distribution Committee Became a Fundraising Innovator (New York: iUniverse, 2010), xvii.

[4] Ibid., 133.

[5] Ibid., 132.

[6] Peter F. Drucker, Managing the Non-Profit Organization (New York: Harper Business, 1990,) 66.

[7] Michael Hammer, “The Soul of the New Organization,” in Francis Hesselbein, Marshall Goldsmith, and Richard Beckhard, eds.,  The Organization of the Future, (San Francisco: Drucker Foundation/Jossey-Bass, 1997), 25.

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HOWARD M. WEISBAND is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and served, among other positions, as secretary-general of the Jewish Agency for Israel.