Jewish Community HeroesIf your Facebook feed looks anything like mine, then surely you’re aware of UJC’s Jewish Community Heroes campaign.  In case you’re not, here’s what I’ve gathered strictly from the barrage of “Vote for X!” messages I’ve been receiving.
UJC, aka The Jewish Federations of North America, aka The Jewish Establishment, sponsored an online popularity contest that sent dozens (if not hundreds) of Jewish Non-Profits scurrying to mobilize their social networks to garner votes for their candidates. The winner(s?) get some kind of cash prize for their organization.
A disclaimer: I am generally much more positive about UJC than many of my compadres here. While I don’t always love every decision the Federations make, I think the good they do outweighs their missteps. And a big honking chunk of the good the UJC does is making thoughtful allocations of communal funds to ensure that worthy causes can thrive. The whole point of federated giving is to protect the less-sexy charities (like elder care facilities) from losing the popularity contest of philanthropy.
So what are we to make of the UJC’s current effort? To be fair, I am not going to pop over to their website to see if my impressions from Facebook accurately reflect the campaign. Here’s a video they’ve made that you can watch while I do that, announcing the twenty semi-finalists:

I’m going to refrain from thinking too hard about who made the semifinals except to point out two things:
First, there’s a disproportionate number of Chabadniks among the group, which is a testament to how far ahead of the rest of us Chabad is when it comes to social networking. This should surprise no one.
Second, I want to congratulate two Jewschoolers among the final twenty: Aryeh Goldsmith (aka Aryeh) and William Levin (aka Jewish Robot)! Okay, those congratulations may seem a bit weak coming at the end of this particular rant, but they both do good work, and each got more than 12,000 votes, so either they’re both skilled organizers or making positive impacts on many people’s Jewish experiences or both. So kol hakavod.
Okay, so reviewing the rules, it looks like I got it about right. Anyone could nominate. Voting narrowed the field to 20 semifinalists. A panel of judges will narrow that group down to five finalists. (The judges span from people who are experts in the running of nonprofits to a comedian and two athletes… I’m not really sure what the thinking is there, but I’ll write that off as being mostly harmless.) It’s not clear how the ultimate winner gets chosen, but the winner will be announced at the General Assembly in Washington, DC next month. Whoever he or she may be, the winner will receive $25K to put towards their project, and the four runners-up will receive some kind of undisclosed smaller investment.
This strikes me as so contrary to the idea behind Federation, I just don’t know what to do with it. Okay, here are the potential upsides: some Jewish organizations, in their scurrying to win, might learn a thing or two about how to utilize social networking to get their message across. And I suppose if someone went to vote and actually bothered to look at the nominees other than the one who sent them to the site to begin with, then some lesser-known Jewish causes might get some publicity. Oh, and I guess UJC might get some publicity in certain corners of the Jewish world that might not already be familiar with them.
Here are the potential downsides: organizations making their first steps into social networking alienate their supporters (or would-be supporters) by using the contact to say “vote for me!” rather than something meaningful. Organizations that already have a robust network in place can stuff the voting box, so smaller, newer, or poorer organization (aka those who might need the money even more) are at a disadvantage. (See note above about Chabad.) The idea that Federations distribute money based on a strategic plan for maximizing the impact of that money becomes a laughingstock. Kids are taught that being popular comes with a financial reward. Presumably, someone in each of these organizations took time out of doing the actual work they’re supposed to do in order to organize and mobilize the voters. And somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 or more is given out as a reward for… well, it’s not really clear now, is it?