Editorial: Federation: Choose Transparency

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The special relationship between the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the community it serves is built upon shared responsibilities, expectations and trust.

For generations, Federation earned its position as the community’s central address for planning and resource development. Its leaders understood that to have a cohesive community — and one that could generate needed charitable dollars from thousands of donors, large and small — it was required to view them as partners. Partners, in turn, expected education, information and transparency about the community’s ongoing and changing needs so they could maintain confidence and trust in the centralized annual fundraising and allocation process known as the Annual Campaign.

However, a trend toward secrecy at Federation is emerging that, if left unaddressed, will lead to an erosion of trust and undermine the Annual Campaign.

There are many recent examples, including the virtual disappearance of a once-widely shared Federation community annual report. Two stories from today’s edition of the Jewish News illustrate the point and identify a path for transparency and renewed trust. Both involve the Federation and the Jewish Community Center (JCC).

To reduce the JCC’s chronic financial deficits, it was announced in late 2014 that the Jimmy Prentis Morris facility in Oak Park would close. The plan was made public after the decision was made. Two forums in January 2015 attracted 750 people who voiced outrage at failure to involve the community as part of the process — and the lack of transparency. Subsequently, a grass roots “Save the Oak Park JCC” group formed and interfaced regularly with Federation leaders. In August 2015, an anonymous donor pledged to replace the building with an updated facility that would still serve the community’s needs. The JPM facility closed its doors on Aug. 31, 2015.

And then, silence. For weeks. For months. For almost a full year. Ron Aronson, a leader of the Save the Oak Park JCC group, said in a story on page 10: “There were no announcements or visible activity at the building, not even a sign saying ‘watch this space.’ The community was completely in the dark about what was happening, if anything. We understand that rebuilding or renovation is a complicated and sometimes lengthy process, but there is simply no excuse for Federation failing to keep the community informed.”

According to Federation, the reason for the silence was “there was nothing concrete to report” because a viable model for assuring a new facility that would meet the needs of the community and the anonymous donor was incomplete. The absence of a viable model, and attempts to develop one, was important to communicate.

Juxtapose the shroud of secrecy enveloping Federation’s Oak Park JCC decision-making with the separate story on page 14 about the JCC’s continuing financial challenges. In it, new JCC CEO Brian Siegel offers transparent responses as part of a recipe for regaining trust. “The community lost confidence that we were telling a straight story, and the JCC bears responsibility for that,” said Siegel, who had been JCC president during a portion of its financial turmoil.

Federation would be wise to follow the path of Mr. Siegel. He recognizes that open, honest and regular communication (something especially important to the new generation of donors the Federation seeks to cultivate) earns trust — the underpinning of the relationship between the community, Federation and its Annual Campaign.

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