UJC: An Opportunity for Change

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March 1, 2000
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Evan Mendolson

Carl Sheingold’s essay on the UJC merger asks several critical questions about the direction of this evolving entity. At this important juncture of American Jewish communal experience, what new institutional connections and framework are necessary to address the profound changes taking place in the philanthropic environment? What will be the relationship between individual donors and the public interests and institutions of the Jewish community as they both seek to respond to profound changes in Jewish life? How will the UJC resolve the complex political challenge of “collective responsibility” in order to address communal needs that transcend local realities?

The tremendous accumulation of wealth that is taking place in the Jewish (as well as the broader American) community and the transfer of over $10 trillion to the next generation of Americans in the next two decades is having an incredible impact on our community. To capitalize on these factors, communal institutions will have to rethink how they relate to the community members who were once primarily thought of as annual donors to a central campaign. The enormous growth in private foundations and donor-advised funds is emblematic of the desire of Jewish funders to express their own personal values and priorities in their philanthropy. These independent funders want to be actively involved with their philanthropy. They have more choices both in the Jewish and American nonprofit communities of ways to make a difference with their tzedakah.

The Federation system, represented nationally by UJC, needs to reflect these changes in its structure and processes. There must be new ways for individual funders’ interests to be joined with communal priorities and needs. Donor-centered services and broader involvement of donors and community members in the identification of needs and setting of communal priorities will help. Applying critical entrepreneurial thinking to the great American Jewish communal experiment is imperative. If UJC develops its “pillars” and “foundation” with these ideas in mind, it could help unleash this enormous philanthropic potential. But if it gets bogged down in the politics of control and fear of change, it will lose an incredible opportunity.

The same thinking is needed for the issue of local control vs. national and international collective responsibility. Individuals and local communities must understand how the larger national and international issues affect them so that they can “let go” of the control that is their natural tendency. Individuals are inclined to fund locally, where there is more accountability.

Wonderful examples exist, both in and out of the Jewish community, of ways to provide opportunities for funders to exercise their desire to make a difference.

Building trust as a willing partner is essential if the UJC is to succeed in responding to the challenges of a changed philanthropic environment. The individual/local community vs. the local community/collective responsibility issues are paramount, as is partnering with a broad range of individuals and institutions that bring new resources to the Jewish communal enterprise.

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Evan Mendelson is Executive Director of the Jewish Funders Network, a national membership organization dedicated to advancing the growth and quality of Jewish philanthropy to Jewish and secular causes. She has worked in the Jewish community for over 30 years with organizations such as Hillel, the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, and the American Jewish Congress.

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