URJ cuts highlight need for NPO reforms

URJ cuts highlight need for NPO reforms

Where will it end?
In addition to well-publicized cuts — locally and nationally — by Jewish nonprofit organizations such as Hadassah, State of Israel Bonds, Bnai Zion and the American Jewish Committee, the painful cuts in the Jewish world are expanding to religious organizations as well.
Late last week, the congregational umbrella for the Reform movement, the Union for Reform Judaism, announced it would make layoffs and organizational changes to reduce its budget by about 20 percent.
But as the cutbacks in the Jewish world continue, some NPOs are thinking outside the box in order to stay afloat.
Faced with reduced income due to congregations being unable to pay their dues, the URJ will reduce its budget from $25 million in 2008-09 to $20 million in 2009-10, URJ spokeswoman Emily Grotta said. The URJ, which serves more than 900 Reform congregations throughout North America, already has saved $1 million through a hiring freeze in September and 13 layoffs in January.
“Congregations and synagogues are not immune to what is going on,” Grotta told JTA.
It was not immediately clear how the cuts would affect Reform congregations in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Region of the URJ, was unavailable for comment this week.
The Reform movement likely won’t be the only synagogue organization wrestling with budget cuts. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which is still developing its budget for next year will like make “noticeable budget cuts,” said its treasurer, Bob Sunshine.
“We’re still in our budget process now and I expect we’ll have to make reductions. We already started to make some this year,” Sunshine said. “The synagogues are struggling, the members are struggling; one can expect their ability to pay dues at the rate they have been paying can be tempered under the current environment.”
The cutbacks underscore the need for NPOs to reinvent the way they do business.
“They’re going to have to begin looking for ways to reduce their nonessential expenditures,” said Kevin Kearns, a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, who’s written extensively on nonprofit management. “I guess you can call that a triage approach to reducing nonessential work while remaining true to their core purpose.”
In addition, he said NPOs must diversify their revenue streams and consider collaboration and resource sharing with other NPOs. He also stressed the need for transparency in their decision making.
Perhaps most important, he said the board, staff and volunteers of a NPO need to be in agreement on what needs to be done.
“These are the times when people, because of their fear, can panic or form coalitions with people who are panicking,” Kearns said. “They can be divisive times for organizations as rumors circulate about what programs are being cut, what jobs are being cut. It can really challenge an organization.”
The tough times notwithstanding, an economic downturn can force an NPO to reassess its mission and emerge for the tough times stronger than before.
“In times that are difficult like this,” Kearns said, “this is often the time when an organization really, really rediscovers itself, rediscovers why it exists, what it’s good at where it has an advantage that no other organization has. It can learn to manage in a much smarter way.”
Yet even as Jewish NPOs are retrenching they are also thinking outside the box.
Last year, the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Jewish committee, became its own local, independent group, changing its name to the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee.
And just two weeks ago as Hadassah announced it has laid off the staff of its Pittsburgh office, Pittsburgh Hadassah leaders said they, too, would resume responsibility for their own local operation and possible rehire of some or all of its employees.
In Hadassah’s case, the change wasn’t totally new. Prior to 2000, the Pittsburgh chapter had been run locally; after 2000, the national organization took over and began running things.
PAJC President Jim Lieber said the model is working so far, but it’s not easy.
“At least we’re surviving where other organizations have very unfortunately had to closed up in Pittsburgh,” he said. It’s been a true liability situation for us and I think we’re on our way; we’re doing well.”
Going local, he said, requires at least two “keys” to success: a strong local must already be in place, and local volunteers must be willing to assume financial and programmatic responsibility for the group.
It also helps if you have enough time to make the transition, Lieber added.
“Fortunately, we had notice this was happening — enough notice that we could make an orderly transition,” Lieber said. “Many organizations just have the rug pulled out from under them.”
PAJC went independent last summer, but it had been planning for at least six months prior to that.
Still, the cutbacks can’t help but be painful, especially for those who work for the NPOs.
“I enjoyed working for Hadassah very much,” said Karen Shapiro, one of Hadassah’s laid off employees. “I enjoyed its mission, I enjoyed working with its members, volunteers and the community. I am a life member and will continue to be active in the chapter.”
“Money,” said former Hadassah Executive Director Sheri Minkoff said of the reason for the layoffs. “It was absolutely a fiscal decision that forced them to restructure.”
Both Minkoff and Shapiro both said they enjoyed their time working at Hadassah and really believed in what the organization stood for.
(JTA contributed to this story.)

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