The Steuart Street entrance to the offices of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. Inset: Federation CEO Danny Grossman. (Photos/from file)
The Steuart Street entrance to the offices of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. Inset: Federation CEO Danny Grossman. (Photos/from file)

Pandemic accelerated Federation’s shift from ‘community chest’ to broader role

From synagogues to day schools to social service agencies, every Jewish organization has had to learn new ways of working these past 15 months.

That includes the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, the central grant-making institution in the Bay Area Jewish world.

In the past year, the Federation has disbursed $25 million in Covid-related aid, most of it in the Bay Area and some in Israel. Approximately $23 million was in the form of grants, and $2 million in loans.

But handing out money is just part of what Federation does, CEO Danny Grossman said in a wide-ranging interview with J. on June 11.

“We come from a legacy of being the community chest. People thought of us principally as a communal grant maker,” he said. “We’ve been moving steadily over the last decade, really, but especially over the past five years in the direction more of being a hub of the network of communal organizations, in being able to aggregate data, bring people together and make grants in the context of cohorts so that organizations receiving them can learn from one another and build off of one another.

“The pandemic accelerated and sort of sharpened that change, because there was more work to do at a faster pace.”

Like other major Jewish institutions, the Federation moved to remote working before the state-mandated shutdown in March 2020. Realizing that they would be called upon to provide emergency financial help to other Jewish communal organizations, Federation leaders quickly conducted a survey of those organizations and convened a Covid-19 task force that, in coordination with Federation committees, helped determine how much to give to whom.

The Federation decided to direct more funding to human service organizations such as Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, Jewish Family and Children’s Services (Palo Alto to Santa Rosa), Jewish Vocational Service (S.F.), the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center (S.F.) and domestic violence prevention and support agency Shalom Bayit (based in Berkeley).

“The demand for services was outstripped by the capacity they can provide, so we leaned in with additional support,” Grossman said. “And I expect that will be the case for the coming years.”

Of the $25 million total, $8.7 million was directed to food, housing and job relief, including $5.6 million to Hebrew Free Loan, which used those funds for zero-interest loans to more than 300 borrowers. Slightly more than $6 million was granted to Bay Area Jewish organizations such as schools, camps and JCCs to replace lost revenue (J. received $75,000 from this pool).

In addition, $10 million came from donor-assisted grantmaking specifically for Covid-related needs: $8 million in grants, most of which went to human-services agencies such as S.F.-based JFCS; and $2 million in “community impact loans” that will be repaid and loaned out again.

Some existing programs had to be put on hold to release funds for this emergency, Grossman said. And the demands will continue.

Some organizations can spring right back, but others will take longer.

“Pandemic response is going to be our priority for probably the next couple of years,” he said. “This coming year is going to be a year of [agencies] starting to get back on their feet. Some organizations can spring right back, but others will take longer.”

But the pandemic wreaked more than financial damage. This spring, the Federation surveyed nearly 90 Bay Area Jewish organizations, asking about their greatest needs. The results, Grossman said, were surprising.

“You would think that when you ask … what is your top concern as you look ahead into the next year, that they would say financial issues, sustainability,” he said. “But the answer was mental health. And that is across the board, from Hillels to day schools to JCCs.”

And those issues won’t disappear post-pandemic.

In response, the Federation recently held a webinar addressing mental health needs in the community, and granted more than $500,000 to local groups working with Covid-related anxiety and depression among teens and college-age students.

This past year, as part of the changing focus of its work, the Federation held informational webinars related to Covid, and began holding monthly meetings of the foundations in its Endowment Fund, to increase coordination. “We’re all working in the same community,” he noted.

The year of lockdown also had a big impact on how the Federation operated. Like other organizations, most of its staff have been working remotely since March 2020, and all events and programs have shifted online. The Day of Philanthropy, for example, which is usually an hours-long affair in the fall drawing hundreds of people, became seven separate Zoom sessions over a two-month period.

Some of those changes will persist, Grossman said. People have gotten used to the ease of moving quickly from isolation to connection on Zoom, and tools such as private chat and breakout rooms offer new and efficient ways to be together while remaining safely apart. “There are big segments of the population that will still want to consume online because of its convenience,” he said, noting that it’s particularly appealing to the elderly and others who find it difficult to meet in person.

When it comes to the work week, however, “We are not going to snap back to the way it was,” he said. He anticipates that employees will continue working from home “25 to 40 percent of the time,” while coming together regularly to maintain personal connections. “Maybe there will be a day a week where everyone comes into the office,” he said. “We’re still figuring all that out.”

The Federation is beginning an interesting workplace experiment this week, in response to the communal survey’s revelation that so many people are burned out and exhausted.

Beginning June 14, the Federation instituted a two-month “summer slowdown.” Nonessential projects will be put off, fewer meetings will be scheduled and work hours will be reduced, so employees and lay leaders can rest and recharge.

The accomplishment Grossman is perhaps proudest of is how Federation was able to help local Jewish nonprofits access federal help by obtaining Paycheck Protection Program loans. Every one of the 37 Bay Area Jewish nonprofits that applied for those loans received them. Some that were rejected in the first round of PPP loans came to the Federation for help, and were directed to different banks, or received support in applying, and then got loans in the second round. “We had a 100 percent track record,” Grossman said. “And that resulted in $30 million that flowed into these organizations.”

Sue Fishkoff

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