Local | Philanthropy & Family Finance

Tucson Federation develops and funds creative, relevant community programs

Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona volunteer Louise Good, right, is a classroom reading tutor at Homer Davis Elementary School. (Danielle Larcom)

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of four articles on how the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona allocates funds. The first, in the Oct. 12 issue, focused on youth and family education programs at synagogues. The second, in the Nov. 23 issue, focused on national and overseas allocations. The final installment will focus on the Federation’s beneficiary agencies.

The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona instituted its current Planning and Allocation process in recognition that the world is changing so fast, we can’t just go along for the ride, we must be proactive, says Stuart Mellan, JFSA president and CEO.

“People think of Federation as a fundraising organization, which we are, but we are so much more. There are so many ways the community is engaged in Jewish life through Federation,” says Mellan.

The Federation’s funding allocations do encompass the campaign department, which includes Women’s Philanthropy, professional affinity groups, young leadership groups, and the Northwest Division. Other programs under the JFSA umbrella include the Arizona Jewish Post bi-monthly newspaper; the Coalition for Jewish Education, overseeing Hebrew High, PJ Library and PJ Our Way programs; the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Holocaust History Center, in connection with the Jewish History Museum; and the Weintraub Israel Center, which is overseen jointly with the Tucson Jewish Community Center. The JFSA also maintains the community-wide website, www.jewishtucson.org.

A community does not just happen, Mellan says, it has to be created. “To create the community you want, you have to be planning for change, and you have to have the right people around the table. There are a lot of moving parts.” The Federation strives to be the place where the Jewish community and leadership — religious, secular, advocacy, philanthropic — can come together around one table for collective activism. “The litmus test of how strong is a Federation is whether leadership of all kinds of people is around the table,” Mellan says.

To fulfill the premise of one organization as the driver of Jewish life, a variety of stakeholders must be at the table — Federation, synagogues, Jewish Community Foundation, young leaders, senior leaders, philanthropists and others who are engaged and those who are not as engaged, says Mellan. “We’ve established a much more rigorous process in [the three external] areas in which the Federation is involved. We felt we should do no less regarding the Federation itself.” Mellan describes Federation as an engagement organization more than a fundraising mechanism. “It has a vibrant, programmatic component. There are thousands of people involved in its various programs,” he notes.

The purpose of the Planning and Allocations Committee is to constantly look in the mirror and make decisions as to where we should be putting our energy, says Mellan. “This year we put the annual ‘Together’ event on hiatus, due to expense both in funds and time consumption for execution. Instead, we will focus on other outreach programs, such as expanding the Northwest Division. We look to acquire a larger space to meet the growing community demand in that area.”

The Federation uses the PAC to examine its own budgeting. “We are fortunate to have Jeff Artzi and Peter Marcus as the JFSA PAC funding group chairs. They care deeply about the community,” Mellan says. “As business people, they think of things regarding business planning. They have a sensitive way to work with each staff member in each department for business planning, goals and metrics so that we can ask:  1) Does the program meet our mission? 2) Is someone else in the community better suited to run this program, which can change over time?  And, 3) Is there a return on investment, is the program a high priority for the community? These are not easy questions to answer.”

As an example, teen outreach program engagement may not draw large numbers of participants but is still an important investment for the future. “Judgement must be used in this evaluation,” Mellan notes. The Jewish Latino Teen Coalition, which JFSA supports, is one such signature program targeting a small group of teen leaders. “We try to find creative and fresh ways to engage and be relevant to the next generations,” says Mellan. “JLTC is the only one of its kind in the country, as far as we know. The LGBT inclusion project 15 years ago was only the second such project in the country.”

Other highly visible programs include the Homer Davis Project, which feeds 100 children a week and puts volunteers one-on-one with children in classrooms in a local public elementary school; and PJ Library, which distributes books monthly to 800 Jewish children. Federation is a primary partner with the Jewish History Museum in creating the Holocaust History Center, launched three years ago. “The school-twinning project has taken off in the last three or four years and reached hundreds of children on both sides of the ocean,” Mellan adds, citing one of the Weintraub Israel Center’s programs.

Mellan believes there is a myth that legacy organizations that have a long history cannot be innovative. “I think we’ve proven that’s not true. We can be creative, and we are reinventing ourselves all of the time.” He cites the Weintraub Israel Center, which has celebrated 20 years of success; the Homer Davis Project and Women’s Philanthropy’s Mitzvah Magic program, both a decade old; JLTC’s 16 years of success; the 5-year-old Jewish Tucson Concierge program; and a 16-year history in building the Northwest Division center and programs that now is set to expand.

“We are constantly reinvigorating and reinventing how we reach out. We encourage success by developing a new generation of 30-something leaders to bring talents to other parts of the community,” Mellan says. “We build relationships through JCRC so that, when tragic events like the recent shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue happen, we can bring the community together in 24 hours. That is because of all the work that happens year round.”