Culture, Identity, Justice, Mishegas, Politics

Madoff and the recession is God's way of telling us to kill the dinosaurs

Whoa, did I just say that? Is that as bad as Shas’ head rebbe blaming Hurricane Katrina on Bush’s support of the Disengagement? Could be. Ignore the cause, the effect of the effect is clear:
The fundraising crisis could be great for the Jews. Madoff’s grand theft from the coffers of Jewish orgs (more here) and the recession’s impact on general revenues could be a great thing. Jonathan Mirvis is saying it. Lucette Lagnado said it earlier. Mirvis’ op-ed “Groups must change or face extinction” is spot on, criticizing not the mega-philanthropists themselves, but the orgs who depend on them too much. Legnado informs us,

In 1988, the Federations […] had about 814,000 donors; by 2006, that number had plunged 36.25% to 519,000 donors. The decline continued in 2007, when donors dropped below half a million. The UJC’s fund-raising, though rising in real dollars, has actually fallen when factoring in inflation. Larger checks from a few donors have kept the picture from being a lot worse.
[…] Thanks to Mr. Madoff, Jewish charity may have to return to its roots, becoming once again a widespread communal effort, instead of being concentrated in a few powerful hands.

Mega-donors are great things. I know, I’m a fundraiser. But they also create nonprofit versions of self-censorship: mission cowardice, mission creep, and mission irrelevance. Many an org is founded on great principles but cannot take brave, bold stances out of fear of losing major funding. I would know, I lost a major funder before. Many an org find themselves doing projects only tangentally related to their core mission because that’s what they found money to do…and it’s not so unrelated, is it? These are challenges all operations wrestle with — governments and for-profit businesses too.
Mission irrelevance, however, is the Jewish community’s biggest problem. As Mirvis agrees,

Since it was far easier to raise large amounts from single donors than it was to raise small amounts from multiple donors […] This has led to a systemic danger whereby policy may be dictated by the powerful few who are not necessarily in touch with the market needs.

Despite that very worthy and wonderful institutions aren’t lamentably hurting too, I will say that it’s good that those which cannot be supported by the will of the populace will have to go. AJCongress, CAJE, gone, unable to sustain themselves without the mega-money. The Jewish Agency finds the diaspora no longer willing to just funnel it money. The cuts bite into seminary budgets and cultural programs. Art galleries are sold. Free trips to Israel are reduced from 24,000 to 4,000.
So this is the best time to wonder if we really need/needed this level of self-indulgent largesse? In choosing between the soup kitchen funded by the federation and 92nd Street Y, shouldn’t the soup kitchen win? In choosing between academic capacity and the art gallery, shouldn’t the Brandies art auction be an uncontroversial sacrifice?  What other communities have sent 400,000 of their youth on week-long, all-expense paid trips to the homeland? And in the greatest shame, with all the pressing needs of this world, why were we sitting on all those millions instead of using it anyway?
As Mirvin closes his op-ed, “Thus the new economy may well lead to a healthy democratization of organizations, leading to a new relationship between the organization and those being served.” Of the Jewish start-ups studied the widely heralded JumpStart survey, we should measure innovation perhaps by how many are major-donor dependent and how many actually answer to their constituents?
Perhaps it’s time to either tear down the centralized reps like the JCPA and Conference of Presidents, or open those bodies to become beholden to us and our vote. Ever wondered where you would make your voice heard in the democratic structure of the Jewish community? Notice — you can’t. There isn’t one.
Or, alternately, maybe it’s time to Jew it yourself — and cease caring about the institutional world at all, and instead turn to a Judaism that is self-sustaining in small community, independent entirely.
Just like the auto industry has found old models crashing down, so too the Jewish community has found it has funded eight brands of outdated cars with overpaid executives and no fuel efficiency to exist in new market conditions. It’s time for a hybrid and no more executive jets.
Dear Jewish dinosaurs. Your meteorite has hit. The mammals will take it from here.

10 thoughts on “Madoff and the recession is God's way of telling us to kill the dinosaurs

  1. fundraising during a recession/depression is difficult, but not impossible! my great grandmother went door to door in montreal during the depression collecting tiny amounts (pennies, nickels) and ended up contributing that to a larger group who started the jewish general hospital (there’s a wing named for her!).

  2. Is the American Jewish Congress truly finished? I hadn’t heard they conceded that. It’s like waiting for the soprano at the opera to finally keel over. She just won’t finally stop wailing.

  3. American Jewish Congress seems to still be going – their website indicates new business as recent as today.
    But I want to take issue with this false binary of the soup kitchen or the 92nd St Y. I do not in any way mean to diminish the importance of social service programs, but Jewish living is also the business of the Jewish community. If we don’t continue to support our educational, cultural, and religious institutions, there won’t be any Jews left to support the soup kitchen.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making a continuity argument. I care about what the next generation looks like as much as the next guy, but I care even more about what today looks like. Now, there may be more cost-effective ways of creating meaningful, deep, and engaging opportunities for Jewish experience than birthright israel (to use another of your examples), but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  4. ” If we don’t continue to support our educational, cultural, and religious institutions…”
    KFJ wasn’t suggesting anything of the sort.

  5. kyleb, it’s not a far jump from federations should support soup kitchens rather than the 92nd St Y to tzedakah money should only be given to social service programs. I know I’m already hearing that in my community.

  6. dlevy, for the record I’m not saying cultural programs should be cut entirely. But I am saying that in a recession where cuts are presumably temporary, it’s time to revisit priorities: for the short-run I think arts and culture will necessarily get the short shrift. It’s sad but between life and art, the sanctity of human life should be recognized.

  7. Let’s revisit the “Artists who get funding vs. Artists who manage on their own” argument. If your ‘art’ can’t exist without subsidies, maybe it’s time to let it go.

  8. Just want to point out that I was talking about arts/culture/education/religion, not just “art.”
    I suspect that many Jewish experiences that speak to unaffiliated and/or underengaged Jews require subsidies, not because their audiences can’t pay for them, but because they won’t. We’ve been very fortunate that nonprofits and their donors have helped lower the barriers to participation in the Jewish community. And for those of us on the inside, it’s very easy to forget how insurrmountable all those barriers can seem.

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