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Year in Review: Changes on the Horizon

July 5, 2007 By:
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Ira M. Schwartz
If you could pick one adjective to describe your first year at Federation what would that be?

"Challenging" is the word that comes to mind. It has been a year marked by changes -- some difficult and others exhilarating. I'm reminded of a quote from one of my favorite Dickens novels: "It was the best of times, and the worst of times." This seeming contradiction accurately depicts the dynamic environment here at the Federation during the past 12 months.

What have been the "worst"?

During my first few months here, I shared some troubling news about Federation with staff and community leadership. We were facing a $5.5 million discrepancy between revenues and expenditures, and had been dipping into our unrestricted endowment fund to make up the shortfall between the money we had raised and the funding we wanted to provide. With the full support of our board of directors, I introduced a series of cost-cutting measures that would enable us to live within our means and become more fiscally responsible.

Some of these actions, specifically last fall's restructuring of our regional offices in Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware counties, were painful to implement as they involved cutting staff members and funds to some programs that the community enjoyed, but could not easily be measured or evaluated. In fact, cost-cutting measures were implemented across the entire organization. It was not easy to make these difficult decisions; it never is. However, these necessary measures resulted in $1.3 million in savings. I can honestly say, however, that we are a much leaner and more efficient organization as a result of these cost-cutting measures.

Another $4.2 million was eliminated from the budget through the hard work of many men and women of vision. Our Policy, Strategy and Funding Committee charged the boards of Federation's Center for Jewish Life and Learning, Center for Social Responsibility and Center for Israel and Overseas to set specific annual goals and make recommendations for investing in a limited number of carefully selected programs and divesting from others.

How did you determine which programs and services to fund for 2007-08?

This year, we implemented what I think is a very strategic funding strategy -- an RFP ("Request for Proposal") allocations process. This process is grounded in solid business practices, and designed to be able to clearly articulate measurable institutional goals and objectives. Community Partners submitted detailed proposals outlining what they wanted funded, how their programs would help Federation to address its priority areas, and how we could measure the success of these programs.

Our partners were required to think not only in terms of outcomes-based funding but also on collaboration-based models. Then, at the end of April, the Center boards and the Policy, Strategy and Funding Committee, under the able leadership of Scott Barsky, reviewed these proposals, and recommended funding for only those programs that were measurable, goal-driven, and would enable Federation to impact the Jewish community's greatest needs.

At the June meeting of the Federation Board of Directors, the Committee's recommendations were approved, and we passed the first balanced budget in 15 years! We were also able to return more than $1 million to our Endowment Fund. I am particularly proud of this accomplishment, and deeply grateful to board chair Beryl Simonson for his support of my efforts to help Federation become more fiscally fit and operate more efficiently.

How do these changes position Federation for the future?

The balanced budget bodes extremely well for Federation's future. It builds confidence in our organization and makes donors feel that, by investing in the community through Federation, they are making a wise choice. We are seeing bright men and women of vision bringing their talents to us, and we are seeing those who walked away years ago coming back to the table with renewed energy. Our credibility is steadily improving, and our perception is changing for the better.

And now, let's shift our focus to the "best" of times.

It gives me great pleasure to see Federation move toward full compliance with the Strategic Philanthropy Plan adopted by our board in 2003. This document provided a clear mandate for our organization for the future -- to be more focused, efficient, transparent and accountable. I think we're well on our way to accomplishing these mandates.

I believe that Federation needs to rely on techniques from the for-profit world to be its best. To this end, we are formulating objective metrics that we can use to evaluate the success of our community partners and programs we're funding.

This is good business practice, this is how good businesses succeed, and this is how I want our Federation to function. As an organization engaged in the business of tzedakah, we need to know where our money is going, and we need to show our donors, our leadership and the community that the money is only going to organizations and programs that can show us results -- results that we, in turn, can share with our stakeholders.

I also believe that, with the assistance of my President's Task Force, an advisory group of key community business and philanthropic leaders, we are poised to tackle significant communal issues in the months and years ahead. I expect recommendations from this Task Force to come out some time in September.

Perhaps one of the most positive and personally satisfying developments of this past year is our community's tremendous response to the crisis in Israel. Thanks to Michael Coslov, whose deep passion for Israel and strong leadership of our Israel Emergency Campaign, helped us to raise in excess of $13.4 million to help Israelis recover after the devastation of last summer's war with Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Michael and I traveled together in the aftermath of the war, and his love for Israel was revealed in the following statement: "As long as there's a strong, viable Israel, the Jewish community around the world and in America will be strong. I think if there'd been an Israel 75 years ago, you wouldn't have had a Holocaust."

What major new developments are on the horizon?

I am thrilled to report that, effective June 29, Federation purchased American College campus in Bryn Mawr. This historic transaction -- the largest single purchase in Federation's history -- was approved unanimously by our Board of Directors. It will position us as a true community convener -- an organization that can bring different groups together for the benefit of the entire community.

This beautiful 38-acre property will ultimately become a vital and vibrant Jewish Community Educational Campus, with Akiba Hebrew Academy as its lead tenant. This September, an official renaming of Akiba will take place at American College; the school will be named Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. Students and staff will begin classes at this new site in September 2008.

With its central Main Line location, we are confident that this property will offer significant opportunities for the realignment of Jewish community resources. I am extremely proud that Federation is the facilitator of this development.

With this purchase, we are once again fulfilling our mandate as the central organization of the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community. As we did in 1985 with the creation of the Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park, we are helping to bring together several organizations who share a common dream -- a vital, vibrant center of Jewish life and learning.

The most exciting part of this is that we have been able to orchestrate this deal without sacrificing financial resources targeted for funding community initiatives. Though this is a $30 million transaction, it will have no impact whatsoever on the allocable pool or Federation's operating costs.

Two existing tenants have long-term lease agreements enabling Federation to cover most of the operating costs.

This is only the beginning of many exciting innovations and projects as Federation embraces its new role as the central address of the Greater Philadelphia Jewish Community -- a hub of philanthropic activities and a facilitator of community groups all united by a common goal: to impact community critical priorities.

Would you like to share some personal reflections with readers of the Jewish Exponent?

I am deeply impressed with the passion that this community feels for its Jewish programs, services and institutions.

As I have traveled the region during my first year as president, I have learned that the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community looks to Federation to help it connect with fellow Jews -- socially, spiritually and philanthropically.

I greatly appreciate the feedback I have received, both positive and negative, as I strive to make Federation more responsive to the needs of all its diverse constituencies. I also appreciate the tremendous support I have received from both staff and lay leadership during these challenging 12 months.

As board chair, Beryl Simonson has been an excellent wing-man, and a visionary helping me to steer this Federation ship on a new course. This journey has not always been smooth sailing, but it has been exciting.

This summer, Beryl will step down, and Len Barrack will assume the leadership mantle. I know that Len is already formulating his vision of a "new Federation." I look forward to a smooth transition as we navigate the winds of change together.

Ira Schwartz welcomes readers' comments, concerns and/or questions. To register your feedback, go online to: www.jewishphilly.org; click on "Ask Ira."

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