March 30, 2011
Jay Sanderson pushes for change but some lose heart in the face of his leadership style
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Of course, part of the problem is that Sanderson’s task is genuinely difficult, as he tries to transform a deeply entrenched establishment from one that is barely getting by to one that is thriving.
The Los Angeles Federation, like umbrella charities across the country, is suffering as donors turn to specific causes that they can directly influence.
“When I took this job, the community was giving Federation a message,” Sanderson said. “Fundraising was flat for more than a decade, and the message was, ‘We’re not as interested as we should be.’ So, to me, in order to get people interested, you have to look at everything we’re doing and ask if it is the best thing. You have to look at everything with fresh eyes.”
Jewish Family Service (JFS), the BJE (formerly the Bureau of Jewish Education), Jewish Vocational Service and other organizations that for decades received annual allocations from Federation now compete with others for funding.
“One of the things that we have historically always relied upon is that when nobody else funded it, Federation would always fund it. These paradigm changes are something we watch very carefully,” said Paul Castro, CEO of JFS, which received $2.3 million this year from Federation for programs to help Jews in need, nearly $300,000 less than last year.
“But I also think that there is a different relationship evolving. We are no longer a Federation of agencies. We are a collective that has multiple missions that intersect because of our role and purpose in the Jewish community,” Castro said.
Federation, along with Jerusalem-based Reut Institute, conducted an in-depth evaluation of the much-hailed Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership that has already led to some program changes and will lead to more, Sanderson said.
He also dismantled the Israel and Overseas department, letting go its director, Lois Weinsaft, who had been with Federation for 30 years.
Israel, Sanderson said, should be part of every department, and not isolated in a single one. He has created an Israel advisory committee and placed specific programs into his three programming areas. Caring for Jews in Need, for instance, funds hot meal and after-school programs in Israel, as it does in Los Angeles and other places around the world, while Engaging in Our Community takes on the Holy Land Democracy Project, which takes private and parochial school teachers to Israel.
Sanderson said the new model breaks down walls between traditionally separated areas.
“The problem in the past was that the various task forces didn’t really know what the others were doing,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who is chairing a new committee that will link synagogue and Federation activities. “I was chair of a task force on Serving the Vulnerable, but I didn’t know what was going on with education or religion. Under the new structure, those things are much more coordinated, and this is really going to benefit the work of Federation.”
Sanderson has re-emphasized the “Jewish” part of Jewish Federation.
Caring for Jews in Need has shifted resources from programs that served primarily non-Jews to programs that more directly impact the Jewish vulnerable. Federation and JFS are working together to place social workers in synagogues, for instance.
Federation has put more resources — around 60 percent all programming funds — to Ensuring the Jewish Future, looking to such intractable issues as making Jewish education more affordable, lowering involvement barriers for the unaffiliated and harnessing the energy of young people.
Sanderson says he will measure his success by two metrics — the total dollars he brings in, and the number of donors and participants.
Hired, in part, for his experience in media and communications, with the hope that he would better tell Federation’s story, he has downsized the communications department, redesigned the printed material and hired Blue State Digital, the company that developed President Obama’s online strategy, to revamp Federation’s approach to social networking. Federation paid Blue State $200,000 upfront and now pays thousands more monthly.
In the past year, online donations increased more than 90 percent, to $342,000, and more than 20 percent of online donors were new to Federation. Sanderson sends out regular e-mails and videos to 31,000 e-mail recipients and 30,000 viewers log on to jewishla.org monthly, according to Mitch Hamerman, communications director. Around 60,000 people have voted on Federation’s online contest, “The Next Big Jewish Idea,” where nearly 500 ideas have been submitted for a chance to win $100,000 in funding, office space and logistical support to develop a high-impact program for the Los Angeles Jewish community.
But inside the headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., staffers told me, Sanderson’s communications skills have been seen to be lacking.
Early on, he said he was expecting to find a Federation staff like “the New York Yankees,” but instead found “the Bad News Bears.” Sanderson says now that he probably shouldn’t have made the analogy, and not just because he’s a Red Sox fan.
But, he said, he was truly surprised when he got to Federation to find a staff he considered below par.
“I do not believe that we had an A list when I started. That’s not specific to any individual, but I think the overall quality of the staff was not what it needed to be to do the work we need to do. And I believe one of the biggest accomplishments we made over the last 14 months is bringing in talented new people and promoting people who were not encouraged in the past. We have given the people in the building what they need to be more successful.”
Sanderson has harsh words for Jewish communal professionals and the graduate school programs that produce them.
“I interview people for jobs, and I find them ill-equipped for the work,” he said.
“Most people coming out of [Jewish communal service programs] are round pegs in round holes. I know people are uncomfortable with that statement, but that is the experience that I have had.”
That assessment is not lost on people who worked at Federation.
“Before Jay started, he was saying there are great people here, and he started meeting with people and with younger professionals, asking, ‘What is your five-year plan? Where do you see the organization in five years?’ ” said a former employee who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. “Then he sort of made an about-face and started saying, ‘Nobody here works hard enough. Nobody here does their jobs well.’ And he started to put the fear of God into people.”
Sanderson set up a requirement that all employees had to be at their desks 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (3:30 on Fridays), a departure from the past and from the broader window the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) had just negotiated.
The newly rigid hours caused hardship for some employees, but management denied any accommodations, making allowances only for Shabbat observers to get home earlier on short winter Fridays, according to Andrea Houtman, president of the AFSCME Local 800 and a graphic designer at Federation. Among those denied accommodations were a woman who needed to start and end her day earlier to pick her mother up from adult day health care, a mother who was unable to see her baby at night and a couple who would have to leave their daughter in front of a locked school building early in the morning so they could get to work on time.
“Where are the Jewish values?” Houtman asks.
Sanderson said he was not personally aware of any of the accommodation requests, which were presented to human resources by union representatives.
“I am very proud of how employee-centric we are — how many days off, how much sick time, all the Jewish holidays we give. I think we are a very generous organization,” Sanderson says. “I’m just trying to put in some processes and procedures that will make us work more effectively so we can do the work in the community that we are expected to do. And we can’t do that lackadaisically.”
Exempt union employees — high-ranking staffers who don’t punch a clock but don’t get paid overtime — also fell under the new work hours requirement for the first time, though no written memo circulated so there has been some confusion as to what those hours are, said Houtman.
“If you take an hour off to go to the doctor during the day, they’re going to dock your sick leave or vacation, even if you work 12 hours that day,” said Houtman.
Houtman said the increased workload and the stricter time demands, along with a lack of positive feedback or appreciation, has led to predictable discontent.
“It’s employer advice 101 — if you do this to people, you are going to turn people into clock-watchers,” Houtman said. “I am not going to describe my members as clock-watchers, because I know them and they are people who are deeply dedicated to the Jewish community. But there is a lot of demoralization and resentment over unnecessary rules that have made the work place meaner.”
New relationships, new realities
Since Sanderson took office, around 25 people — more than 15 percent of the staff — have been fired or have left. One fundraiser, who declined to be identified, said most people in the department have resumes out.
“I think there is mistrust, and I think people are scared for their jobs. … I love The Federation, and I love what I do, and I’m nervous talking about it, but I realize no one else will, and this will just continue and get worse.”
Sanderson announced this week that he hired Nancy Sacks, a development director who raised hundreds of millions of dollars for UCLA, to lead Federation’s campaign. Since November, Sanderson had directed the campaign department himself. Even before he took over the department, Sanderson began to personally monitor a new requirement that fundraisers each week meet with five donors or potential donors and make 15 significant phone calls.
“One of the things I think is great about what Jay has done is he’s actually trying to make people accountable,” one former fundraiser said. “But the way he instituted it is Draconian. He implemented an across-the-board regulation … as opposed to getting to know each individual and their job and then determining what the expectation would be for each person.”
Sanderson said the changes are necessary as he tries to move Federation away from event-based fundraising toward more one-on-one relationships.
Sanderson and Sandler also have realigned the lay-professional relationship, placing more authority with professionals who, unlike volunteer lay leaders, are on the job every day and don’t rotate out of positions. Under Sandler, the board adopted a bylaw requiring a $10,000 donation for board members but recently reconsidered that change and will rescind it at a membership meeting in the fall, according to Sandler.
Those changes, like others instituted this year, may take a while to settle into place, as people get used to the new realities.
Not least, Sanderson himself.
“This can be a very lonely job,” Sanderson said. “At the end of the day, I drive home late at night and, when I’m in the car by myself, I know that some people like what I did that day, and some people don’t like what I did. And I am somebody who actually cares about what people think.”
“But I see all the amazing things we’ve been able to accomplish, how the campaign turned around, how the relationships in the community are getting stronger, how people come to me every day and say they read my e-mails. I feel like this has been the most gratifying year in my career.”
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