Canary Mission has been known to send activists to college campuses dressed in canary costumes, a tactic that was decried as “troublesome” and “unproductive” by a Hillel executive at the University of Michigan. (Photo/SJP of George Washington University)
Canary Mission has been known to send activists to college campuses dressed in canary costumes, a tactic that was decried as “troublesome” and “unproductive” by a Hillel executive at the University of Michigan. (Photo/SJP of George Washington University)

How does S.F. Federation vet grantees?

In fiscal year 2017-18, in addition to its direct grants to local organizations, the Jewish Community Federation disseminated 9,400 grants totaling $175 million through its 412 donor-advised funds and 23 supporting foundations. Much of that money went to universities, JCCs, synagogues and other Jewish organizations.

In 2016, one of those supporting foundations — the Helen Diller Family Foundation — gave $100,000 to Central Fund of Israel, a New York-based charity, which funneled the money to Canary Mission, a controversial pro-Israel organization that maintains a public list of individuals and organizations it deems to be anti-Israel and/or anti-Semitic.

Critics call the Canary Mission website a “blacklist” and say it has affected hundreds of people who have been barred from jobs, publicly embarrassed and even detained or turned back at Israel’s border.

Central Fund of Israel was taken off the Federation’s list of permitted grantees in 2017, and both the S.F.-based Federation and the Helen Diller Family Foundation have publicly declared they will no longer fund it, or Canary Mission.

But how does this vetting actually work? Is it, as some critics claim, biased against left-wing groups? What is the status of some other right-wing, pro-Israel groups that have been funded in the past by Federation donor-advised funds or supporting foundations?

First, the Federation manages its grant-making process according to funding guidelines adopted in 2010. Those guidelines block it from sending donor-advised funds or supporting foundation grants to organizations “that through their mission, activities or partnerships: endorse or promote anti-Semitism, other forms of bigotry, violence or other extremist views; actively seek to proselytize Jews away from Judaism; or, advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, in whole or in part.”

The funding guidelines were prompted by the fracas resulting from the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screening and discussion of “Rachel,” a film about American activist Rachel Corrie, killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer as she protested Palestinian house demolitions in Gaza. The Federation had provided substantial funding to the festival and was thus subject to criticism in the wake of the debacle.

The guidelines were initially directed toward Federation grants to local organizations to prevent a repeat of the Rachel Corrie incident. One guideline affirms that co-sponsoring or co-presenting public programs on Middle East issues with “supporters of the BDS movement or others who undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel” is not consistent with Federation policy.

Direct Federation grants are one of three funding vehicles, and the guidelines were applied to them first. Then attention was focused on donor-advised funds and supporting foundations.

It wasn’t an easy task. Some of the language in the guidelines is very precise — “endorse anti-Semitism,” “proselytize Jews away from Judaism” and “participation in the BDS movement.” Other language is more vague: What constitutes bigotry? Who determines what is an extremist view? Many of these decisions can be quite subjective.

RELATED: Former Diller Teen Fellows: ‘It’s not enough to apologize, you have to take action’

To make those decisions, Federation has an internal vetting system that looks at every potential grantee, as well as, in the words of CEO Danny Grossman, “those grantees we determine need continual review.”

The organization is researched by staff, and that information is sent to a committee of lay leaders that determines whether the organization is in compliance with the guidelines. Grossman estimates the number of those rejected to be “in the low double digits.” Federation shares its research and the committee’s decision with donors; most opt not to fund organizations found to be out of compliance, Grossman says.

“Once a donor knows that an organization is not compliant [with our guidelines], they don’t advance them,” Grossman said. “In the vast majority of cases, donors learn something [from our information] and agree” with the committee’s decision.

Infrequently, a donor will find a way to send money to such an organization outside Federation auspices. And Grossman knows of only one donor-advised fund, and no foundations, that chose to withdraw its funds entirely from the Federation umbrella.

Regarding the charge that the Federation applies its guidelines more vigorously to block funding for left-wing organizations, Grossman says that’s “not true numerically.” In fact, he says, “more on the right have been deemed ineligible” in recent years.

In 2015, the Federation began to tighten up its vetting process for grantees. First, donor-advised funds were reviewed, and then grants made by sponsoring foundations.

Several other right-wing organizations that have received funding through Federation donor-advised funds or supporting foundations are now off the table as well, Grossman said. They include David Horowitz Freedom Center; the American Freedom Defense Initiative, founded by Pam Geller and Robert Spencer; and the American Freedom Law Center, co-founded by Robert Muise and David Yerushalmi. Past funding for these organizations has been criticized in recent reports in the Forward and Haaretz.

The Federation used a variety of sources, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, to develop its position on these groups — for example, the ADL has called AFDI “anti-Muslim bigotry” while the SPLC deems it a “hate group.”

“All three were determined not to comply with our guidelines in 2017,” Grossman said.

The S.F.-based Federation was not the only Federation to come under fire from Jewish media reports. A donor-advised fund of the Jewish Community Foundation Los Angeles gave $250,000 in 2016-17 to Megamot Shalom, an Israeli-based nonprofit with alleged ties to Canary Mission, the Forward reported last week. That funding has since been suspended, according to JTA.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].