Reforming USCJ governance and finance to greatly improve support to affiliated communities
USCJ is currently running deficits, losing affiliated congregations, and dealing with a large number of affiliated congregations who are questioning the benefits of affiliation. Many congregations simply don’t think the organization is able to respond to the needs of affiliated communities. Successfully executing some of the better governance ideas in the strategic plan will help. They plan to lower dues and link them to congregational budgets rather than numbers of members. They also plan to put more of the dues back into all geographic regions.
I have no expertise in organizational structure, and I’ll confess that this section is a bit more brainstorming than the above sections, but I figure I’ll try to write something vaguely useful. I look at the most recent budget and the professional and lay leadership organizational structures and I just don’t see how they communicate and function. It looks like a bunch of people with malleable job titles who mostly work in NY. ($4.3million of the $18.4million budget is spent on central office staffing. USCJ gets $8.3 million from affiliation dues and assessments.) I have no clue how ideas travel around the organization and what the lay-leaders who have 1-to-1 pairings with professional staff’s job titles are supposed to do.
Most importantly, if USCJ is to get the most from it’s limited budget, it needs to rely heavily on volunteers. In the current structure, I see no place for volunteers to work with the professional staff to suggest, plan, or improve programming unless they’ve been elected or selected for a position. I’ve not once heard about a USCJ committee looking for input on various projects. How do a bunch of volunteers get connected so that they can participate in a discussion of common interests? In the case of education, the Jewish Education Change Network is one new example of how volunteers can participate in conversations that are cultivated by professional leaders. It’s still too young to call JECN a success, but I think it was created outside of denominational structures (though nothing stops USCJ from creating it’s own groups and forums on that site). As of this writing, I found a single one of USCJ’s professional educators on JECN. Currently, they’re barely part of this type of conversation.
To turn USCJ into an organization of connectors (as was suggested in the strategic plan), it needs to change how it places and evaluates staff. I have no clue how evaluations are currently done, but I’d love to see USCJ staff evaluations include metrics of how many continuing and new conversations they’ve had with people around the nation and the number of active volunteers on their committees. USCJ also needs to get away from its NY centric structure. While there are benefits to having most of their staff work near each other, that means they don’t need to master long-distance collaborative tools like shared documents, wikis, and social networking. If they set a goal of having 75% of their staff living farther than commuting distance from their NYC offices, they would need to integrate collaborative tools into their lives. Those same tools would facilitate their interactions with congregations and connections between communities regardless of location. Their staff would also be directly involved in a much more diverse range of communities and come in face-to-face contact with more people. Lower salaries from not having to pay NYC cost-of-living wouldn’t hurt either.
On the issue of staff salaries, I’d love to see more cases where USCJ pays partial salaries of synagogue/community employees. Instead of 8 people in a central office, imagine if 50 innovators across the country received $10K from USCJ to spend 15-20% of their time writing up their programs and directly helping out other congregations. This could let synagogues hire better people and benefit the wider community without a huge cost overlay. It might also benefit some Jewish professionals who bounce between several, completely separate jobs to pull together a full salary.
On the broader issues of funding and fundraising, it seems like some of the most-liked USCJ programs are either cheap (emailing list maintenance or local gatherings) or self-funding (USY and SULAM). Affiliation dues seem to go mostly to centralized staff, which isn’t the most exciting thing for philanthropists to support. This might be why USCJ decided selling board seats was the best way to convince people to write big checks. I simply can’t agree with this and the optics of selling seats works against engaging lay volunteers. A large, active base of lay volunteers is worth more than a few big checks. While the leaders might point to schools, like JTS, that have such policies for board membership, USCJ is not a school and its leadership structure can’t survive on the same model. It doesn’t hurt to encourage big donations and give those donors larger voices, but they can’t drown out other voices.
So how does USCJ fundraise the money it needs? I think USCJ needs to identify key programs or new initiatives that simply can’t self-fund. For example, Koach, the college out-reach program had about $70K in unsupported expenses and is listed on the cutting block in the strategic plan. Is there no network of Koach alumni or exciting new expansion ideas that could bring in an additional $70K/year? (The threat of cutting Koach – seemingly without speaking to many current students or alumni – seemed to create such a network in a matter of weeks. It also demonstrates the completely wasted volunteer energy within the movement. Whether for Koach or other Conservative efforts, why doesn’t the USCJ leadership regularly engage these people, who can almost instantly bring together a network of people who are passionate about a Conservative movement program?) Besides a $5 greeting card fundraiser, there’s not even a “donate” button at koach.org. (That website, in general, could use work) If USCJ is talking about new collaborative education efforts, why can’t they fundraise for those? If staffers are given specific project initiatives, then their salaries are something that might generate more philanthropic interest. USCJ also needs to talk more about the number of communities and people that use their services. By meshing fundraising with collaborations and access to unaffiliated organizations, they might get donations from beyond the usual movement base.
I have no great and inspiring way to end this series of posts. I’m just a random synagogue member who was crazy enough to volunteer some of his time to write a series of blog posts that may or may not be ignored by the people who can actually change things. Perhaps there aren’t many people crazy enough to spend time writing posts like this, but there are many people who would volunteer time and energy to help create programs that benefit the Jewish community if there were exciting things going on that could use their help. Perhaps USCJ or other large Jewish organizations can take this to heart.
I’m a parent in my early 30’s. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue and I’ve been a dues paying member of Conservative synagogues since my early 20’s. I’ve davened with at least 8 independent minyanim. I have never been paid for work in the Jewish community. I spent a couple of years on the board of directors of one synagogue where I had many opportunities to observe the competencies of USCJ. I think the Conservative movement would benefit greatly from an organization that connects our communities to resources that help them improve. It would be great if USCJ could be that organization. I figure it’s worth a bit of my time to prod them in that direction. You can reach me at: improve dot USCJ at gmail dot com