UJA-Federation CEO Eric Goldstein on the most surprising aspect of running a nonprofit organization

Have you ever wondered who runs large philanthropies? Is it someone with a lot of money? Someone who went to school for it? Well, some charity organizations actually have CEOs, and it turns out that their job is not entirely different from the job of a CEO at a for-profit organization, according to Eric Goldstein, the CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York.

Ladders spoke with Goldstein to find out more about his organization, his position, and what being the CEO of a charity is all about.

What is the UJA-Federation of New York?

“UJA Federation is the largest local community charity in the world. We raise over $200 million a year from the community, and then we use those funds to support the needs for the most vulnerable in New York and around the world. We also have a focus on engaging Jewish community…around half our dollars go to that as well. We essentially are the backbone of the New York Jewish community and our influence is across both local and global.”

Are you involved in the research that the UJA-Federation does?

“Of course, what we do…before we go into an area, we look for systemic gaps in service. When you’re dealing with food insecurity in New York, where are the gaps in service? What is out there? What kind of innovation and technology might exist to help address the challenge? So we do significant research in an effort to have the most impactful grant making.

Also, on a decennial basis, every 10 years, we do a major survey of the New York Jewish community to understand it deeply and that informs our decisions. This is a very, very large survey and starting this year we’re modifying how we do that. So we’re actually going to be surveying the community each year so that we have a more current, constant source of information about the community and its needs. I should be clear that that survey is about the New York Jewish community and our work to support the most vulnerable, but we support a lot of non-Jews in the community as well. That’s a significant part of who and what we are.

We have an entire group that does nothing but evaluation and performance assessments so that every grant we look at, every grant we do, has a walking-in measure of success so that we have a benchmark against which to decide do you increase a program, do you decrease a program, do you discontinue a program, or do you do something new? And it’s based on research and evaluation.”

How many employees does UJA-Federation have? Are they all based in New York?

“We have roughly 425 employees. The vast majority are in New York. We have an office in Manhattan, which is by far the largest. And then we have branches in Long Island, Northern Brooklyn, and both Northern and Southern Westchester. And then we have an office in Israel that supports the grant making we do there.

How would you describe your work culture at the UJA-Federation?

“We try to mimic, internally, the culture we want to create externally. Our commitment is to create an inclusive, diverse, connective community. And that’s what we seek to aspire to be internally as well. We want to live our values. That’s constantly evolving and we’re constantly looking to improve. That’s the goal…to live our values, those that we project externally…to have them exist internally.”

What are the UJA-Federation values?

“Diversity, inclusiveness, connectivity. We see ourselves as one of the few remaining places with people from across the community. We’re a community charity. We raise money from tens of thousands of people each year who come together to address common challenges…the most pressing challenges in the community. So we want to have people from across the political spectrum, from across the religious spectrum, to feel comfortable where they are literally and figuratively able to come together. We seek externally to create a connected community where people feel that we’re doing something for a greater good, and we want to establish that same ethos here. Obviously we very much are focused on the types of divisions across the community. We seek to build bridges, so we want to have that kind of connective community here.”

What advice would you give to someone interviewing at the UJA-Federation of New York?

“I come from the for-profit world and one of the things that I was most inspired by is our employees overwhelmingly could do anything they wanted to do. The fact that so many decide out of a sense of mission and purpose to spend their time working at a not-for-profit, with all the sacrifices that entails…it shows an extraordinary dedication to the mission. So you want, first and foremost, people that can express that dedication to the mission, who clearly feel a sense of passion about our work. And then, and obviously this is true in any context, you want people who will sweat the details, who are actually not waiting for someone else to step up and get something done…to reach out and help get it done. So we value a team player with a sense of dedication to the work we do.”

What made you switch from the for-profit world to the not-for-profit world?

“This is my second job. I had been at the law firm that I was at for over 30 years. I was entirely comfortable in that role and that world and when I was a private lawyer I spent a lot of time on communal activity, but my existence was kind of for-profit by day and a communal role beyond. I was not reaching out for this role. This was one of those things where you have to take opportunities as they come.

I was the Vice Chair of this organization, on its board, on its executive committee, and on the search committee to find its new CEO when the prior CEO who’d been there for 15 years, an extraordinary person, decided to step down. When he announced his decision to leave I did not think to take this role or to even reach out to do it.

I ended up having lunch with the CEO, which we did from time to time and he put the idea in my head. He said, ‘you know you seem to like our work, you’ve done what you’ve done for many, many years, maybe it’s time to switch.’ The thing he said to me..it took me four months to get to the point of leaving the search committee and putting my name in for consideration…but the thing he said to me at that first lunch that stood with me, which is sort of a statement in an answer to your question, was ‘what do you look forward to most in your week? Is it your legal career or is it the communal work you’re doing now? And if it’s the communal work I suggest there isn’t a better platform or better way for you to spend your time than applying to this role.’

Again, this was a conversation in June, I didn’t leave the committee until October. It was a hard decision for me to make then. But from the perspective of five years, truly then if I knew then what I know now, I would’ve made the decision much more quickly. I loved my former life, I loved my partners…I still do…but this is a great way to spend a day.”

Did you have to learn how to delegate again as CEO of the UJA-Federation?

“For sure. Law firms are really different than corporations, for-profit or otherwise. There’s an entirely different management structure. Corporations are more hierarchical than law firms in many respects. A lot of things I had to focus on in terms of learning to delegate more. I had to delegate giving people you have confidence in the opportunity to go and do their thing and be successful.

I spend a lot more time in this role around culture than I did at the law firm. I was in a different management position…I was a partner for many years. We had teams of lawyers on individual cases, but was much less involved in the workplace…the environment of the workplace. It’s often said that culture eats strategy. That’s clearly true. You could have the best strategic plan, but unless you have the appropriate culture to enable that plan to succeed…it’s going to fail. So I spend a lot of time now on making sure that our culture allows us to succeed. That we communicate across departments, that there’s a collective sense of pride, not only in what my department does, but what all of us enable together and the extraordinary work of this organization is only possible with all of us truly feeling a sense of pride in each others work.”

What was the most surprising aspect when you made the switch from partner to CEO?

“I was surprised at how difficult it is, how long it takes, and how much you need to focus on changing culture. Moving from a sense of silos to a sense of collective action. We speak about the importance of collective action to our donor base. How you can leverage, come together as a community, invest philanthropically in a community trust essentially, which is what we are. And then have those dollars be put to extraordinary use across the world. That sense of collective action, again mirroring what we value externally and having it exist internally. With collective action…working not only within your department, but across it to achieve a common result. It takes a lot of time and you have to believe it. It has to exist from the top and all the way through the organization for it to stick. So we spend a lot of time on that. I’m surprised about how long it takes to effect real change.”

Do you find any differences being the CEO of a nonprofit compared to a for-profit corporation?

“Other than the inspiration I take from our workforce, our professional staff…the differences in a nonprofit world, people again have this mission and purpose. They’re doing this not to make gobs of money, but to truly do good in the world. It sounds like a slogan, but it really is true. People, out of a sense of mission and purpose and not in an effort to maximize the money they earn. That’s very different from a law firm..a lot of people do wonderful things, but there’s a strong for-profit motive in what they do. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s the reality. Here, people do what they do truly out of a sense of mission and purpose.

So there’s a difference in talking to for-profit and not-for-profit CEOs around that, but the essential need to knit culture and have a sense of connection…this is still a business. And you need to operate the way that resonates with consumers, in this instance donor resonates…you need to use the most innovative technologies to engage the community you’re seeking to engage. You need to have compelling products. In our case, the work we do, the grants, but it’s not terribly different. And you need to always instill a sense of trust in…whether its in the people you do business with in a for-profit context, or…in a nonprofit context, we need to make clear and create a sense of confidence for our donors…instilling a sense of trust. So that’s true in every business…including the not-for-profit world.”

What are your goals for the UJA-Federation for the rest of 2019?

“From an inward facing perspective for the organization, you’re never satisfied with your culture and you always push to figure out ways of doing it better. We recently created a new role called Integration Officer, whose job it is to knit us so that we’re all communicating. Technology is a tool, but you also need a culture of wanting to share, recognizing the importance..so we have someone who’s focused on knitting us better together going forward.

Externally facing, there are dramatic challenges in the world. We need more organizations like ours. It’s as important and as critical as ever. One-third of the Jewish community lives at or near poverty. There’s a vast poverty throughout our city and beyond, notwithstanding that we’re among the most affluent successful communities anywhere. New York is really quite something, but we have dramatic challenges and we need to do a much better job. And we can do better. Individually we’re also now focusing increasingly on growing antisemitism and what we uniquely can do first on security but also around bringing together  an interfaith coalition. How do you bring together groups to combat this culture of hate? How do you push back at this current fracturing and have people come together recognizing that only together can we seek to change the current environment.

We have unprecedented scale and reach. We give out $150 million a year in grants in our priority areas. But we can’t do everything alone. We work increasingly to convene organizations across the community. We have the power to bring organizations and individuals together to tackle our greatest challenges. We work specifically with Catholic Charities, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. On a regular basis we are increasingly working with Muslim groups. The idea is, as a faith-based community, there’s an enormous amount we can also do, not only locally in New York, but that also has a much broader impact.”

What else do you want people to know?

“The only thing is that there is life after law. As much as I self-identifIed as a lawyer my whole life, the not-for-profit sector is a place for enormous opportunity and I think that devoting your career to the not-for-profit sector is something that people should seriously explore as a source of enormous personal satisfaction. The work you do is truly important. So I would encourage people to at least explore the not-for-profit sector as they figure out what they might want to do in life.“