Creating a Culture of Engagement and an Age of Partnership

In 2016, even as the world around us has changed, Federations have remained true to our historic purpose. Still, we have changed our tactics in response to new generations' attitudes toward community, philanthropy, religion and culture. 

Robert Kovach, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, shares how his Federation made a dramatic change in their strategies. In doing so, as he explains, they also made a dramatic change in the quality of Jewish life in their community. After careful, informed and inclusive planning, more Jews are doing Jewish through their direct work with both community members and community partners.

In 2010 the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York commissioned a Jewish community demographic study. From the survey, we learned that an unfortunately large segment of the community did not understand Federation’s role in the community nor trust Federation as a community convener or funder. By many, Federation was seen exclusively as an overly aggressive fundraising machine. 


The mission of Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York is to build and maintain a strong and united Jewish community in order to ensure the creative survival and continuity of the Jewish people. It is the community’s central agency for meeting Jewish needs and articulating Jewish concerns in the Capital Region, in Israel, nationally and around the world. 


With the community’s attitude, it was apparent that we were not fulfilling our mission, and unless the culture changed, it would grow increasingly more difficult to do so. Therefore, in direct response to this data, the Federation spent approximately a full year engaging all segments of our Jewish community in a strategic planning process. Our five focus groups consisted of affiliated, non-affiliated, active, marginal, completely disassociated and current lay leaders. We felt that by bringing in a large group of participants for the strategic planning process, we not only showed our desire for growth to those people but would be able to morph the Federation into the organization that the community wanted it to be.  


One of the goals articulated in the plan was to “Strengthen the Federation’s ability to serve as a community builder, facilitator, and change agent.” Specifically, the plan calls for Federation to:


  • Increase its role in initiating community change
  • Enhance its ability to serve as a communications hub and improve community-wide communication
  • Rebrand the Federation as a community facilitator as opposed to a fundraiser


We have found that most of our community’s agencies and synagogues have similar needs. They struggle with declining memberships; they lack a methodology for attracting young families; they struggle financially. Several of our organizations lack board vision. They need staff and board development. Federation has the capacity to assist our partners in all of these areas once we can clear the hurdle of trust. If others feel that Federation’s goal is simply to gain access to their donors for our fundraising goals, then we cannot be successful and we will all suffer. If, however, we can change a culture, and demonstrate that helping them to succeed is our real mission, then there is growth opportunity for all.  


Committing resources, we created a new Engagement Department. KB Goodkin, in her role as director of community engagement, serves as our “community concierge” and actively listens to our community’s least engaged. We then created what we call our “Community Engagement Package (CEP) concept” which tailor fits Federation’s role in meeting the needs of each of our community partners. Indirectly and directly, our entire staff has begun to move to an engagement model and work towards the same vision. The CEP gives our local partners and agencies (19 congregations and 6 agencies) a personal platform to share and express views, to learn and grow skills, and to create true community—hands on—beyond institutional boundaries.


To date, we have had several successes.  


By far, our biggest success is with the PJ Library program. We decided to invest in a staff person to oversee programming and events, and to be a liaison between our partners and Federation. Federation “owns” the program, but we house a daily program in a different partner’s facility each day of the week. As a result of this endeavor, we now have a PJ Library rack in every synagogue and Jewish organization in our area, and PJ families participate in multiple locations. The program allows us to expose young and unaffiliated families to several different community institutions without ever asking for money, enabling us to build positive name recognition.  


We are currently running an 8-week leadership development course for the community. We invited all of our partners, anyone who had participated in an initial CEP meeting, to nominate candidates, promising a high-level program without a Federation pitch. We made it clear that we were interested in creating leaders to turn loose for the community in general and not simply for Federation’s own benefit. We are very pleased with our 25 enrollees.  


Several of our congregations failed this year at attracting enough people to successfully create a mission to Israel. We convened a meeting of those rabbis to discuss Federation sponsoring a community mission for all of us, incorporating all of their priorities. One of the rabbis asked, “Will Federation require a minimum gift to participate and will there be a solicitation on the trip?” “No,” I replied. “Our goal in this is the same as yours. We want to help get people to Israel.” The rabbi seemed genuinely embarrassed to have asked the question. Three years ago, he disdained Federation so much, he would not even have come to the meeting.  


Culture change is hard, but we are seeing the positive effects of changing attitudes toward Federation. We have access where we never had it before and we are appreciated where we used to be shunned. The job is far from over, but we are definitely on the right track.


For reflection and discussion: 


  • What facilitates strong partnerships in your community? What gets in the way of your building and executing stronger partnerships?
  • What feels familiar to you in this story? Where do you have similar successes and where do you have room to grow?
  • What do we mean by “engagement”? When do we mean engagement in Jewish community? In Jewish tradition? In Federation? How can we work toward all of these?
  • How do Federations and partners work together to build a community that engages all Jews and Jewish families? 


For further exploration: