In some ways it hardly seems like only a year ago, and in other ways far longer, since Jmore spoke to Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, for the publication’s annual Giving Issue.
Due to the devastating impact of the pandemic, so much has changed since that winter day in 2019 when we sat down with Terrill, who has headed the federation since 2003, to discuss The Associated’s yearlong celebration of the Centennial of its founding. Among the plans were an array of events, publications and community gatherings tied to the 100th anniversary, as well as a special Centennial-themed campaign to raise $200 million for special initiatives, targeted endowments and capital funding.
Jmore recently spoke again with Terrill to talk about how The Associated is coping during this time of incredible challenges and hardships.
How have things changed at The Associated since we spoke last December?
If you’d told me then that two-and-a-half months later the world would be turned upside-down, I would’ve laughed at you. When we were together last December, it was a very exciting time, not only because we were on the cusp of the Centennial but given that our strategic planning and implementation were hitting a tremendous stride. Services were being delivered in response to the socioeconomic challenges of the day and, at the same time, our system was connecting individuals and families to Jewish life in unprecedented numbers and ways.
Also, in December, we had a wonderful launch of our Centennial Initiative attended by several hundred people. Our Centennial Initiative was beginning Jan. 1 and was to have a corresponding campaign to reflect on our achievements over The Associated’s 100-year history, think about the longer term, and build out and imagine a plan for our community over the next century.
People were excited. As a matter of fact, in the early months of the Centennial campaign, we raised over $105 million. That’s in addition to the millions of dollars raised yearly for communal needs addressed through The Associated’s annual campaign. Very exciting achievements, but always charged with developing more resources given the growing needs of our 12 beneficiary agencies, eight operating programs and three overseas beneficiaries. To have the system that we do in providing for a broad expanse of challenges and opportunities, significant resources are needed.
In addition to our local Centennial launch, we had an event in South Florida for Baltimore community members in Florida who winter down there. We had over 100 people attend that launch, met with the same kind of exuberance experienced back in Baltimore in December.
In the beginning of March, everything literally changed. We went from celebration and a look toward the future to dealing with the issues brought on by the pandemic — shelter, medicine, food, unemployment and safety nets. It was no longer a celebration but a time to deal with the issues at hand.
Our emphasis became twofold — providing support for individuals and families to ensure they could get through the challenges of the pandemic, and making sure that the system of agencies serving Jewish Baltimore and beyond remained fiscally and operational viable when the pandemic ended.
What did you do?
We very quickly pivoted. On the service delivery side, within the first three days, we moved all our personnel across our agency system to remote service, set up services for people to reach out for help and get that help. We set up a mechanism for an executive management triage team across our network to look at data and position and alter services when data called for change. Things were so fluid and dynamic that we needed mechanisms for planning, positioning, communicating and adjusting.
The second objective was making sure there was financial and organizational wellness. In other words, if we weren’t intentional in managing through this crisis, we ran the risk of gutting our agencies and putting them at future risk. We quickly put together a crisis management committee that looked at things we needed to be mindful of — service delivery needs; cash flow; spend rates; revenue tracking from all resources like fee-for-service, etc. The uncertainties of the moment in the early months of COVID were very stressful and concerning.
So in our town, it’s all about collaboration and synergy in working through the good times and not-so-great times. In dozens of other communities in North America, there isn’t that type of synergy, and every agency basically is for themselves. Here, that’s not our dynamic. Pearlstone’s problems are The Associated’s problems, Jewish Community Services’ problems are our problems, and vice versa. We are a system of agencies, a network. We leverage assets and attack challenges together.
The value of having the wisdom of incredible lay leaders and professional leaders working together in unprecedented times of hyperbolic planning and execution and implementation is so important. The “value add” working together cannot be overstated. We were and are dealing with the here-and-now but also want to make sure that when there’s a better day, the system is still dynamic, relevant and viable.
Do you feel you’re in a groove at this point?
I think we have the best group of communal professionals in the country, bar none. They care deeply about our Jewish present and future, and we attract the best around the globe to work in our network. Similarly, the lay leadership in Baltimore is not one-and-done or episodic. It’s not like you’re in for a year and go away for 10 or 12 years and then come back. Mostly, there are people involved every single year. They’re battle-tested and experienced. They have certain expertise in business and finance, or whatever it might be. In other words, we were built for times like this.
Having the combination of communal professionals working with people who have business acumen was and is a fabulous recipe for how we get through challenging periods. We have to operate as a well-functioning, effective, efficient philanthropic business. Speed, efficiency, data, management all have significant bearing on our present and future.
But tough decisions had to be made, like reducing the workforces at the JCC, Pearlstone Center and The Associated?
It was evident early on that with some agencies in our network, the prudent management move was to lower expenses where we could. Painful but necessary. In some cases, we had to furlough people, management took significant reductions in pay, we froze retirement benefits and some other cost-saving measures. All those were done early on in the hopes of protecting the integrity of provision of service and making sure we had viable organizations to go forward.
These were not easy things to do. I’ve never had to furlough or let someone go based on something that was not a result of their performance. It was based on circumstantial, on the socio-health-economic ravages of the pandemic, and we were not alone. Every nonprofit was hit with this for the most part. Businesses were hit with this. This was not easy to do, but a lot of those early-on moves were critically important in the financial viability of where we are now.
And how are things now?
We’re hardly out of the woods, because we’re still in the pandemic, but we made the appropriate moves. We’re still providing services at a very high level, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of our system. None of our organizations are on the verge of shutdown. In other cities, organizations did not manage well through the pandemic, and now they’re financially and fiscally obsolete.
We are hopeful that we’re on good, solid ground in meeting the objectives and promises that we look to fulfill every day.
What do you think the future holds?
In the forefront of our minds is taking care of the vulnerable of our community and remaining vibrant and vital. And secondly, to make sure our organizations are healthy so we can return to some sense of not normal but a new normal that is reimagined. The world has changed and many things will be different for quite some time.
What will the new normal look like? Will the bricks-and-mortar model be reevaluated?
We have planning entities that are looking into these things. A quote I love is by Wayne Gretzky who said what made him a great hockey player was not skating to the puck but where he thought the puck was going.
Right now, we’re trying to forecast the location of the puck, and in some respects it’s an affirmation of things we were looking at before the pandemic. People are looking for value, relevance, compelling reasons to connect to the community. Those things happen in some respects in buildings, and in other respects they don’t. So we’re auditing what we need in terms of facilities and how virtual will play into our future.
That being said, community doesn’t happen virtually. You have to be proximate. So at some point, we have to be together again and reinstitute the types of things that make us a community. Zoom has been a blessing, but there’s no substitute for proximity.
Are you seeing the community come through in terms of giving?
How the community has responded has been very laudable. The people who are the major donors of our system are giving in greater amounts than they gave the year before, understanding that with the gifts of wealth and treasure come responsibility. We’re also witnessing donors or prospective donors who have not necessarily been inclined to participate [in the past], understanding this is a time where they need to step up.
And then there are our tried-and-true supporters who are making the quality gifts they can. In some respects, it may be increases and in other respects it may be the same as last year or decreases. But they are responding.
The people who have not responded yet, we need them to respond. One major obstacle is that people are hard to reach. So I’m pleading with people if you’re inclined to being part of strengthening and advancing our communal objectives, pick up the phone and call. Go on our website. Do what you need to be proactive instead of waiting for people to call. There are those who lost their jobs, who don’t know where their next meal’s coming from, who can’t afford their medicine. They need help. We need the community to respond.
Where’s the annual campaign at so far?
We’ve raised $17.5 million and we’ve got millions more to raise and a number of people to be heard from. So if it’s $18, $1,800 or $18,000 or whatever, maybe it’s even a donation of time, we need people to respond. One thing we know is that all the medical professionals are saying we are entering a very dark time in this pandemic. And that dark time will require us to be more available and responsive than before.
By the pace of what we raised last year, we’re on an upward swing and doing well. That said, if there were a shutdown tomorrow and we haven’t reached the people that help make this community work, we failed. So even though things are looking well, we need people to respond.
Does the tumultuous national political situation affect what you do?
We have had a strong relationship with government for the last 100 years and hope to for the next 100. They’re a huge partner in helping to fund our agency system. The only thing we can control is our communal response to how we position needed services and how we present the case for people to support those services.
The political environment has been trying and difficult, but it doesn’t give us permission to not focus on the work at hand.
Was the Centennial a success, despite the pandemic?
When COVID hit, we suspended the fundraising and celebrations and events. Now, we’re slowly reintroducing the fundraising for the Centennial. Some of those plans have been altered based on the pandemic, but we continue to meet with donors about hopes and dreams for the near and longer term, and people have been very receptive. We’ve raised a couple million dollars since the beginning of the pandemic and reintroduced the fundraising for the Centennial. People are being responsive because it speaks to their values and hopes for Jewish Baltimore.
The Centennial is an evolving story. Now, it’s being reintroduced and redefined. We’re off to a good start.
What are you hearing from colleagues in the Jewish communal world?
Some communities are doing better than others. But I think there’s no community that can claim the centralized approach to provision of service, planning and fundraising of any other large city in North America like Baltimore and The Associated. We’ve maintained the discipline, and it’s a credit to the leadership and professionals over the last 100 years. A lot of communities want to put the genie back in the bottle and operate like Baltimore. If anytime has shown the fruits and benefits of centrality, it’s during a time like COVID. We are stronger together.
Do you have plans yet to streamline or restructure your system in the future?
We’ve been conducting evaluations about how we’re structured. We do this always as part of a community planning and allocations process where we have hundreds of volunteers and professionals working with The Associated and agencies on polishing the apple and looking at areas we need to improve. Now that we have COVID, we have to be projecting different scenarios. We’ve been working those through with groups since Mar. 18th. We’ve been working on areas of where there might be potential collaboration or alterations, things we might need to scale down or up based on the realities. It’s difficult to forecast what it will look like, but there are hundreds of people constantly analyzing different scenarios. We’re trying to do it in a thoughtful, intentional way.
Do you envision more furloughs or reductions in the future?
I have no crystal ball. Our belief and hope is the moves like reductions in certain benefits and furloughs are behind us. But I say that with an abundance of caution. We don’t know what the next slice of time has in store for us.
How is morale now among professional and lay leadership?
They are anxious about the economy and future, about working remotely and juggling caregiver responsibilities and teaching at home and being available via Zoom and work life balance. But for the most part, they feel like they’re being supported to the extent that they can, and communication is at a high level.
Everybody is anxious about what the next days bring. But I think we’re doing as well as we can. We are addressing self-care of personnel and our lay leadership. Self-care is critical, so we spend a lot of time talking about that and encouraging vacations, even if you can’t go away, and unplugging and nourishing yourselves and your families.
Do you see any silver linings for the nonprofit world coming out of the pandemic?
I think this will help nonprofits and community organizations in that we got a wakeup call about how fragile each and every one of us are. It doesn’t matter the amount of wealth you have, all of us are vulnerable. People understand the importance of relationships and family and community. I think it might be an emotional and cognitive reset. I think we’re going to find the world will become a lot kinder and empathetic.
In your career, have you ever seen a more challenging time in fundraising?
Never. I’ve experienced war, domestic terror, dips in the economy, the collapse in ’08, 9/11. This issue didn’t just hit Israelis or the poor or people in the former Soviet Union. It hit everybody.
It’s not lost on me that 100 years ago, The Associated was dealing with economic despair and the Spanish Flu. Here we are 100 years later, with incredible health care and technology, we’re dealing with a pandemic and economic despair, and The Associated is here once again to help with lifting people up, in some cases people who never thought they’d need help. That’s the humility of understanding we are all susceptible to what goes on in the world and we’re all interconnected.
I just hope that people really make gratitude a part of their practice every day. I’m grateful for the leaders and donors and my family and this community. People who are out there and enjoying this community and quality of life, thank your rabbi, thank the youth worker, thank the campaigner and the people making our community better. These are extraordinary people who dedicated their lives to advancing Jewish values and keeping our Jewish community strong. This has been a very hard time, so extend your gratitude and offer gifts of the heart.