Let's Get Real - January 7, 2022

This year is not starting as we had hoped with the spread of the Omicron variant. Like you, I am worried about the continuation of the pandemic, but I am also deeply concerned about our Jewish communal world and our ability to provide the services and programs needed by our community.
In 2020 and 2021, many Jewish organizations and businesses were “saved” thanks to the PPP loans from the federal government. In addition, the successful COVID relief emergency campaign for our Jewish community provided additional safeguards to help our organizations. Those resources are now drained while the pandemic continues.
Earlier this week, CNBC shared this article on “10 things that will be more expensive in 2022.” The list includes such necessities as food, housing, and medical care. Inflation is up 6.8%. Everything costs more.
In addition, the New York Times recently wrote about the acceleration in wage growth, particularly in low-paying industries (which would include health aides at JFCS and Cedar Sinai Park, preschool educators, specialty staff at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, etc.). Starting wages can often be $15-$17 per hour for these physically taxing and emotionally draining jobs. Yet, we are seeing fast-food restaurants and car washes offering $17-$20 per hour for some positions.
Jewish organizations are used to competing with other care facilities, schools, and gyms, but now they are also competing with convenience stores, fast-food places, the coffee shops. I do believe we treat our employees well, but we must also find ways to raise salaries at or above market rate and offer other incentives to both hire and retain people. Many people have left their jobs altogether while others are saying, “I would love to stay in this job, I am passionate about the work, but I need to feed my family and pay my rent.”
The nonprofit sector as a whole is struggling to compete. Nonprofit organizations did not cut as many jobs as for-profit businesses early in the pandemic, but they have struggled to rehire following layoffs and furloughs. Total nonprofit employment in November was 4.8% below
its pre-pandemic level, compared with a 1.5% employment gap in the for-profit sector, according to a New York Times analysis.
Wages are not the only challenge. Burnout, mental health concerns, and even child care are playing a major role. (Probably no different than other sectors.)
All this is happening while demand for many services has soared during the pandemic, straining already thin, overtaxed professional teams.
People who leave Jewish organizations in search of better pay are unlikely to return. I worry that future prospective Jewish professionals will not choose this field if they do not believe they can earn a livable wage. I do not want Jewish communal professional work, nor non-profit work in general, to become unattractive careers.
Here is what I am concerned about looking ahead for our Jewish organizations:
  • Many of our Jewish organizations are struggling to hire people to fill open positions. Can we offer competitive salaries and benefits at all levels of the organization?
  • Inflation is having an impact. How do we keep pace as salaries, operating expenses, health insurance and other costs naturally rise? Organizations that rely on membership dues may need to raise them to fill these potential budget gaps. Will that deter new/existing members?
  • At the same time, fundraising is challenging in this environment. Most Jewish organizations are not seeing fundraising increases of 10% or more, and even with that it does not keep pace with inflation and other costs. Donors feel “tapped out” or feel comfortable at a specific contribution level. Yet, the same donation amount just 12 months ago equates to 7% less purchasing power today. So how do we invest in our professional teams, programs, services, and cover increased costs with potentially less money?
  • At the same time, this past year we watched the Dow rise 18.7%. the S&P rise 26.9%, and NASDAQ up 21.4%. The stock market went up, but are we seeing real growth in charitable donations to organizations or donor-advised funds?
  • Many of our community’s most generous philanthropists are getting older and some have passed away. Over the past 10 years, the Jewish Federation alone has seen $750,000 in lost contributions due to deaths. All Jewish organizations are impacted. How do we replace these donations? How do we encourage more of our generous supporters to increase their giving today and endow their support for the future?
  • Are our services at the highest level possible and are we able to meet the needs of everyone who calls? With staffing challenges, it limits what can be done.
  • Will membership grow at Jewish organizations, or in some cases, at least return to pre-pandemic levels? Will people return to in-person programs and events when we believe the pandemic is over? Are hybrid programs here to stay? How do we feel "connected" as a community?
  • We still do not have tools to gauge the success of our Jewish organizations. Typically, many measure inputs such as money raised, clients served, membership levels, etc. Our true focus should be how well we empower people to transform their (Jewish) lives. We need to ask the right questions to those who use our services. How much has the organization helped you improve your (Jewish) life? How likely are you to recommend this organization to someone facing similar struggles or searching for Jewish experiences? What more can we be doing to support you in your Jewish journey?
I want to be optimistic. I believe in the Jewish ecosystem and whenever there is a challenge we seem to pull through. But I am worried. Can we keep pace with the financial realities so our Jewish organizations can meaningfully invest in our professionals and the services we provide? Great Jewish communities happen because of committed, caring, and well-trained Jewish professionals. We must have the resources to recruit, nurture, and retain these individuals to enrich the work that we do and to provide needed programs.
We cannot do today’s work with yesterday’s dollars. That is why every increased contribution, membership, program fee, etc. matters to the strength of our Jewish organizations.
Shabbat shalom.


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