Charitable Nuts and Bolts During Covid

The president of the Jewish Federations of North America describes new realities

Philanthropy: Tell us about your organization. 

Eric D. Fingerhut: There are 146 Jewish federations across the U.S. that raise funds and distribute them to different Jewish communal organizations that are in our local communities. A kind of United Way for Jewish charities. My group, Jewish Federations of North America, is the umbrella agency.

The organizations we assist do all kinds of social service: Care for families, health needs, mental-health needs, disability, aging. Provide Jewish community engagement and education through camps, preschools, and day schools, plus Hillels and trips to Israel for college students. We help charities plan, help them meet the needs of their communities, and help them raise funds. We raise almost $1 billion a year through our annual campaigns, and distribute that across our community. We also sponsor donor-advised funds that individuals use to give away another couple billion dollars every year to enhance Jewish life here and around the world.

Philanthropy: How are you helping right now?

Fingerhut: Our number-one priority at the moment is helping as many of these organizations as possible sustain themselves through the coronavirus crisis. Many groups have seen their revenue drop substantially, as community centers and schools have had to close their doors temporarily. Some have had expenses go up because more people are in need of services. Some are at risk of bankruptcy, of not being able to reopen when the all-clear comes. To lose, in one crisis moment, basic infrastructure that our community spent decades building would be a tragedy. 

We were very active in advocating for the inclusion of the nonprofit sector—and particularly the faith-based nonprofit sector—in the CARES Act. That was a success.

We’re also raising extra funds to help. And dipping into endowments. To make emergency grants and loans, whatever is needed to keep organizations afloat. 

We don’t yet know the extent of this crisis. For example we have a whole network of summer camps. Normally, this time of year families are paying for camp, and the camp is using those funds to pay its staff to prepare. If there's not a camp session this summer, the camps will have to return deposits, and get no revenue. Yet they still need staff. And the camps still need to be maintained. So this is a rolling crisis. The closer we get to summer, the more we’ll know if we have another set of concerns. 

Within these needs, we have prioritized human services. If we have a dollar to allocate, and we need to choose between health services versus a camp, we’re choosing health right now. But our goal is to be able to fund both. 

Philanthropy: What has donor response been like so far? 

Fingerhut: Donors have actually been enormously generous and responsive. Obviously, some people can't give right now, because their own businesses are at risk. But for those who have the resources, the response has been heartening. In the first month of the crisis we were about $100 million above and beyond would our normal allocations would be at this point of the year. 

And some federations have dipped into reserve funds and endowments. The federation in New York City has, at last count, taken $45 million out of its endowment. Their logic is impeccable: “This is what endowments are for.” We build up endowments for a rainy day, for an emergency. This is an emergency.

Philanthropy: What have you been hearing from charitable workers in the field? 

Fingerhut: There is enormous stress on workers. The people who work at our senior centers and nursing homes have been heavily affected. People are sick, some are dying, families can't visit, clergy are stressed. Workers are concerned about their own health. They're worried about their families. Some federations are setting up tents outside the charities they support where they hand out groceries to workers as they're leaving, so they don't have to go food shopping on top of working. 

Religious services have had to go online—requiring a huge amount of energy and creativity. I was just on the phone with two different rabbis who on a normal day would visit families, go to hospitals, care for people, plan for weddings and celebrations. Instead, like the rest of us, they are sitting on a computer trying to connect with their congregants.

Schools have moved their programs online. Think of teachers who are used to being in front of a classroom suddenly having to work solely through their computer screen. It's hard work. And it’s a stressful time. 

I've been very careful not to promise any agency that there won't be any reductions. Because who can promise that? We don't know what the future holds. What financial reality will we reopen to?