Turnaround Job: A New Leader Looks to Revive the Flagging Fortunes of a Key Jewish Organization

Eric Fingerhut.

Eric Fingerhut.

Eric Fingerhut has been president and CEO of Hillel International, the network of 550 Jewish campus group, since 2013.

Now, he has been named the next CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization representing 146 Jewish community federations around North America. They collectively raise and distribute over $2 billion each year to support local, domestic and overseas needs, including social services and education, from mental health clinics and food pantries to Jewish day schools and summer camps, from Jewish pre-schools to old age homes. They also collectively provide funding for the support of Jews in Israel, the former Soviet Union, Cuba and elsewhere. When Jewish communities worldwide—including Russian Jews, Ethiopian Jews and Cuban Jews—have faced major crises, JFNA historically provided key resources.

It has also historically been the largest funder of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), which is responsible for helping Jews immigrate to Israel and integrate into Israeli society. JAFI recently announced the biggest budget cutbacks in its 90-year history, blaming reduced funding from JFNA.

JFNA was born in 1999 out of a merger of three central Jewish organizations: Council of Jewish Federations, United Israel Appeal, and United Jewish Appeal.

Almost since it was established (then called the United Jewish Communities), it has struggled to define itself and justify the dues it collects from member federations.

And the system overall is contracting. As the number of American Jews (like Americans in general) grow less inclined to affiliate and financially support legacy institutions, federations have less money to spend on dues and pay into a system that not everyone—especially large Jewish federations like those in New York, Chicago and Boston—believes functions well.

In 2010, the year it changed its name to JFNA, the system had 157 affiliated Jewish federations. Just last week, the 100-year-old East Bay Jewish Federation in Oakland, CA announced it is shutting down, bringing the number of JFNA member federations to 146. That’s 43 fewer member federations than the 189 that were part of the system UJC’s first year.

JFNA has attempted a number of initiatives to re-brand and engage younger Jews in its mission, from 2010’s Twitter-focused “-Ish campaign” to what it called “Tribefests” held in 2011, 2012 and 2014. They were meant to attract post-college young (and young-ish) adults, but cost JFNA several million dollars in total and were widely considered failures.

Its annual conference, called the General Assembly, was for decades the “must go” Jewish communal gathering of the year. In the past few years, it has no longer drawn the attendance or attention it once did.

Last year, JFNA hired the Bridgespan consulting firm to assess what it needs to do and where it needs to head. Mark Wilf, chair of JFNA’s board of trustees, released a four-point summary of the consultants’ report, saying that the organization will create a “business intelligence” unit to collect and share benchmarking data; “reinvest” in recruiting professional and volunteer talent; undertake “a marquee collective impact initiative focused on engaging the next generations of Jews with Jewish life and community,” and rethink “JFNA services and applying the same business models used by the most successful companies,” focusing especially in financial resource development.

Bridgespan’s actual report was briefly available online, but quickly removed once an often-critical blogger posted it. A press representative for JFNA said that she could not provide it to Inside Philanthropy.

It is against this backdrop that JFNA offered its top professional job to Fingerhut, who served two years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Ohio, and was chair of Ohio’s Board of Regents for four years. Fingerhut, as he discusses below, focused Hillel on using data to drive decision-making. He also more than doubled Hillel’s income during his tenure.

Fingerhut is 60, married to Amy Fingerhut and the father of two sons. He answered questions via email just after his new job at JFNA was announced. He declined to respond to question four, and instead—in characteristically Jewish fashion—answered Inside Philanthropy’s final questions with questions of his own.

1. What is the most important change at Hillel International during your tenure as president and CEO?

When I arrived as CEO, we launched The Drive to Excellence, our five-year strategic plan to grow Hillel as a global movement and help equip every campus Hillel with the tools necessary to measure and achieve excellence. In order to succeed, we realized we had to hire the best talent in the Jewish, nonprofit and business worlds. We created the role of chief talent officer and hired former Google executive Mimi Kravetz to lead our talent strategy.

We knew we could not hope to fulfill our mission of serving students if we didn’t have the necessary resources available on the campuses and in the local communities where students reside, so we launched a campaign to double our collective annual revenue from $90 to nearly $200 million.

As a result, we’ve grown the ranks of our campus professionals to more than 1,000 and expanded our operations to over 600 locations in 17 countries. With this increased capacity, we are in a position to engage more students than ever before—131,000 last year alone. Today, the global Hillel brand is among the best-known names in the Jewish world and in academia.

2. What is something important that changed at Hillel under your leadership of which people may not be aware?

In today’s world of significant philanthropy, organizations like Hillel need to be able not only to deliver compelling stories from students who have benefited from our work, but must also be able to make a data-driven case for impact. In our strategic plan, The Drive to Excellencewe committed to building a quantitative and qualitative system of measurement that would allow us to know exactly what we are achieving, and to set standards of excellence that all Hillels could strive to achieve. We set a goal of enrolling 100 campuses in this measurement system over five years.  

We began the first year with 18 Hillels that agreed to serve as a pilot and help us develop measurements and standards of excellence. We tweaked the measurements based on the results of the pilot year and rolled out standards across the movement.  The resulting system—known as Measuring Excellence—is being used today by over 140 Hillels representing over 90 percent of all Jewish students on campus. On each of these campuses, we measure breadth (the number of students we reach each year), depth (the number of students we reach 6+ times each year), and impact (the changed behaviors of students based on surveys).  We believe this is one of the most comprehensive data systems in the nonprofit world, and it contributed significantly to our ability to raise larger gifts. 

3. What do you see as the biggest challenge you face when you begin at JFNA in August?

Over the past five years at Hillel International, I have come to understand the value and centrality of federation to Jewish communal life. JFNA’s role is both to help federations excel at their mission, but also to help the federation system act collectively. Under the leadership of Jerry Silverman, JFNA has already begun the task of establishing strategic priorities and helping federation leaders speak with one voice. My job is to continue to lead in this effort.

4. Board Chair Mark Wilf, in the press release, indirectly said he hopes you will “make JFNA new again,” much as you did Hillel. JFNA leaders have been talking about this hoped-for transformation since the organization began in 1999. Yet, as the number of Jewish federations has shrunk, as well as the dues that current federations are willing to pay into JFNA, so has the size and the impact of JFNA. UJC's predecessor agencies led many projects of continental importance, including National Jewish Population Studies, which are now distant memories. What do you see as JFNA's main job in the 21st century?

[Not answered]

5. A decade from now, what do you hope you will have accomplished? Will there be a JFNA in 2029? What will it do as both the umbrella organization for Jewish federations and as a potential convener, funder and creator of continental communal transformation? Dream big.

Federations, as the largest communal organizations continentally, have always been at the forefront of collectively solving the biggest challenges. Today, we are all aware of the needs. Safety and security. Education and inclusion. Accessibility and affordability. Political and religious divisions.

I am confident we are ready and able to tackle the issues of our time. We will do it with the same spirit of innovation, the same sense of unity, and the same ahavat yisroellove of the Jewish people—that inspired our predecessors.

We will learn from—but not be limited by—our long history of accomplishment. What does it take today and for the next decade to help our Jewish community flourish and grow, while caring for those in need? What does it take to mobilize the great North American Jewish community to support our brothers and sisters around the globe? What does it take to carry forward the unbreakable bond between the North American Jewish community and the State of Israel, from its remarkable history of the past 71 years to the next generation? What does it take for the Jewish communities in North America to be a powerful force for good in our broader communities, living up to the values of our religious teachings? 

The best days of the federation system are ahead of us. I’m proud to be able to play a role.