What Are Federations Doing in the Engagment Business? Our Role

III.    Federations’ Role

The day after the General Assembly, about 140 people—Federation volunteer leaders and professionals, expert educators and philanthropists, and other educational leaders—got together to talk about relationship-based engagement and its implications for Federations.
We defined what we mean by engagement and began to articulate the opportunities and challenges in the engagement agenda for Federation. 
This series on our Jewish Education & Engagement blog has four parts and one side bar : I. The Problem; II. The Goal; Sidebar: Why Does the Personal Matter? Rebuilding Jewish Social Capital; III. Federations’ Role; and IV. Our Work as a Field. At two points, discussion questions accompany the text for use with volunteer leaders and other stakeholders.


And if you need a summary? (As they say these days: TL;DR) 

Q: What are Federations doing in the engagement business?
A: (Re)Designing a community for a new way of Jewish living, learning, and being.
For more information about any of the ideas here, contact Beth Cousens or Rachel Shtern.


For most Federations, a top priority—or even the top priority—is the mobilization of resources toward high priority Jewish purposes—those purposes involving supporting Jews to live safe and engaged Jewish lives in deep Jewish community. 


For many, it takes tremendous resources just to raise these funds and it is easy to focus just on that. But most of our fundraising strategies rely on the idea that people are already committed to Jewish life — they simply need to be convinced to give philanthropically as Jews, not to be committed to Jewish life.


As we have seen, for increasing numbers of Jews today, this is simply no longer true. Those who believe in Jews, Jewish life, and Jewish community in traditional ways are fewer and fewer, and so the audience from which we might find donors is smaller and smaller.


This engagement agenda must, therefore, be part of our work.


But why else Federation? Our work here is not driven by existential fear. We are positioned as platforms within a community to launch change. We advance a broad view of community and so we have the opportunity to shape community. This is what we do. This is what we’ve always done.


Moreover, we are supposed to put together the pieces, to make the whole greater than its parts. 


We are, therefore, setting a tone for a network of institutions, building a culture of a community. 


To embark on a comprehensive engagement agenda, to redesign the frameworks and infrastructure in our community that engage Jews, we begin with a strategic vision of what we need in our community, a strategic vision of an engaging community. From that vision, we can: 


  • Support entrepreneurs to lead new models
  • Incentivize mainstream organizations to add new initiatives
  • Build capacity through new training across the landscape
  • Strategically award grants to catalyze and support new models


And sometimes, when a community lacks a partner to run with an idea, we can implement an initiative directly. 


Through all of these means, we can take responsibility for creating a landscape of opportunity—not institutions, but opportunity—that engages more North American Jews more deeply in building their lives Jewishly. Programs, fundraising, grant making—all can become tools toward a larger goal of helping more Jews engage more deeply in Jewish life. In the past, our work has sometimes been somewhat sliced: campaign and engagement in Federation in one function, planning and allocations in another. But this blended approach to the landscape, that borrows from and intertwines grantmaking, technical assistance, and program, can work, as we’ve seen in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, among other places.


We seek to engage Jews in Jewish life, but we also do have a core responsibility to mobilize funds and to develop organizational leadership. How do these three mandates relate to each other?


For some, part of living Jewishly will be giving Jewishly. (This has always been true but the percentages have shifted, with fewer total donors now). Colorado and Detroit understand their jobs as following a pyramid, or a funnel of sorts; they create their strategy according to these different mandates and evaluate their work similarly. Many will live Jewishly, some will give Jewishly, and a few will lead Jewishly—and that’s a success. 


Similarly, in the 1990s, the business world embraced the concept of the “balanced scorecard,” acknowledging that revenue was not the only indicator of a healthy business. Instead, a healthy business needs future sources of revenue; satisfied customers who will return and who will spread the word about the product; and a healthy organization that can learn from mistakes and grow in order to strengthen its business processes. 


Within the context of this agenda of engaging more Jews Jewishly, Federation needs a full set of metrics, its own balanced scorecard. Such a scorecard might have four dimensions: 1) increasing the number of Jews who have positive Jewish feelings; 2) who have their own intimate Jewish communities and Jewish friendships; 3) who exhibit Jewish behaviors (including giving); and 4) who are involved in Jewish organizations. We have multiple jobs before us; we aim to achieve in all of them, to be active in the intersecting space of these four dimensions. When we have the whole picture, that’s success. And in the meantime, when we achieve only part of the picture, that’s progress, and we can stay focused on what we need to do to achieve more on all fronts.  We can invest thoughtfully in and with partners that perform in these areas and let these areas drive Federations’ strategies and organizational priorities.


Again, giving is a part of this. In the life of a Jew, it may be only one part. But tzedakah is a core Jewish value and part of getting more people to live more full Jewish lives includes getting them to embrace tzedakah.


Federations may deploy tremendous resources to stimulate giving — and that’s one of our unique value propositions within the infrastructure of Jewish life today. But it is not the totality of our work, and it is particularly not the totality of our success with every person with whom we might connect. We’re working on Jewishness, we’re not working just on connecting people to the campaign, or to Federation, or even to Jewish organizations. Our wish is for people to live authentically in dialogue with the Jewish narrative. And that will get them to Jewish behaviors, including philanthropy, and peoplehood, and community, and much more.