Jewish Journal

Federation Blues

Rumblings of layoffs and doubts about reaching campaign targets are rife at Wilshire Boulevard headquarters.

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on Nov. 22, 2001 at 7:00 pm

With the economy caught in a downward spiral, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has joined the growing list of organizations forced to downsize.

An as yet undetermined number of the agency's 185 employees at the 6505 headquarters and at The Federation's Valley and South Bay sites will be let go, according to officials. This arrives at a time when The Federation, a nonprofit organization, is anticipating a $5 million shortfall in its general campaign.

"We certainly are looking at reorganization," said Federation President John Fishel, who would only confirm that eight Federation employees had been notified of dismissal as of press time. Much thought, he said, has gone into "trying to ascertain whether losing people with important jobs could work, and whether those functions and responsibilities could be picked up elsewhere."

Fishel would not confirm the exact number of layoffs, but he said a meeting next week would determine how many would be necessary. He noted that the cuts would be made "across the board -- all the departments will somehow be impacted," and would involve every level of management.

The Federation has been running print ads that dramatically emphasize the need to boost its campaign target from its current $39.2 million to $44 million.

A downward economic cycle, exacerbated by the dot-com/technologies bust and the recent Sept. 11 attacks, has taken its toll on segments of the Jewish nonprofit world.

Even in October, when the general campaign was narrowly outpacing its 2000 totals, William Bernstein, The Federation's executive vice president of Financial Resource Development, predicted that by the end of the year, charitable giving would slump. "We're not blind to the idea that the economy is not in the position that it was a year ago," he told The Journal. Federation officials now confirm that Bernstein's prediction has proved accurate and that some pledges are not being fulfilled.

Last week, anxiety reached a fever pitch at Federation headquarters as staff members traded rumors of 30 layoffs occurring before the year is out.

Several Federation workers said they believed that the organization is too focused on the bottom line. One of them told The Journal that employees were recently asked to volunteer a portion of their paychecks toward "closing campaign."

The workers said they felt this atmosphere was too shortsighted and came at the expense of nurturing long-term relationships within the organization.

"There are an awful lot of nice people who work very hard at The Federation," said one person who used to work there. "It just seems that a lot of good people The Federation wouldn't want to lose wind up leaving."

Fishel said he's not happy about the people he has to lay off, terming this past year the most difficult of his Federation career. "A lot of thought and a lot of soul-searching went into these decisions," he said. "We had a serious discussion among our senior managers, and we tried to approach these issues as carefully as possible. We recognize we can't wait until it's too late. We have to watch our cash, and we watch where this is going."

One of the people told The Journal that he expected more than a bottom-line mentality from the Federation. "It's tikkun olam, but run by a motion picture studio. Everything's married to the bottom line. It may as well be about checking weekend box office receipts on 'Monsters Inc.'" he said. "You would expect something more hamisch from The Jewish Federation."

For Fishel, it's a public relations challenge to project The Federation's identity as a caring, generous, community-minded institution with a Jewish heart, while keeping an eye on the bottom line, a fiscal necessity.

"You're balancing between hope and a lot of success. There's a very thin margin of maneuverability," Fishel said. "You're not going to have a lot of time to do it. I fully realize that there are people involved, some with families. It makes me feel very bad."

"But to provide the services that we offer, we decided it was important to review very carefully, so that regardless of the outcome of the campaign, we can ensure that the most services are available for the most vulnerable people in our community and abroad."

The rush to provide aid for those victimized by the Sept. 11 attacks has competed for the Jewish community's philanthropy. Recently, nonprofit agencies raising money for Sept. 11 causes, such as the American Red Cross and United Way, have come under intense media scrutiny and, in some cases, under fire for not getting money fast enough to victims' relatives. Still, Fishel said, he believes that people have not become overly cynical about the machinery of the nonprofit world and that any stigma created by such controversies is overblown.

Los Angeles' Federation has been in communication with its New York counterpart to make sure not to duplicate the disbursement of its charitable dollars, he said.

"We operate on pledges, then we make an assessment on how much we'll get from those pledges." Fishel said that with so much money and energy on the federal level being invested into the nation's defense and security, social and educational services might be overlooked and underfunded.

"This is a large puzzle, where a lot of puzzle pieces are not exactly clear at this juncture," he said.

The Federation in Los Angeles is not the only Federation grappling with the long-term impact of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in America.

Earlier this month, at this year's General Assembly -- sponsored by The Federation's parent organization, United Jewish Communities (UJC) in New York -- delegates from the UJC's 189 Federations across North America expressed a mix of apprehension and pessimism.

"We're all waiting to see how things shake out," Los Angeles Federation delegate Mark Lainer told a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter at the Assembly.

"People give in times of crisis," said Helaine Loman, a member of the UJC's Young Leadership Cabinet and a board member of the MetroWest Federation in New Jersey. "And this is definitely a crisis."

"This is not an easy year," said Robert Aronson, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. "Federations are taking hard looks at their expenditures."

Fishel said he hopes that 2002 will offer better tidings: "More stability in the economy, broader hope in the broader society, some willingness in the community to buckle down."

"I'm pretty hopeful in the longest term," Fishel continued. "I tend to think of things in cycles, and I think things are going to get better."

Stewart Ain of Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.

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