Slifka adapts to financial challenges

After over two years of growth in its programming, the Slifka Center has begun to implement a series of structural changes intended to address the organization’s financial challenges.

A decline in the center’s endowment due to the onset of the economic crisis in 2008 in addition to operational deficits have forced the organization to consolidate its resources and to re-evaluate its spending and fundraising methods, said Associate Rabbi Noah Cheses. The changes have been instituted by a newly reappointed Board of Trustees with greater experience in financial management, Cheses said. Staff and board members said the new policies, the reorganized board and the departure of four staff members since last spring, including former Executive Director Steven Sitrin, has created a difficult transition period for the staff of the Slifka Center.

“The primary motivation for this change is financial,” Rabbi James Ponet ’68 said. “We’re a pretty well-funded organization but have indeed experienced this period of economic contraction.”

The organization’s financial struggles have resulted from its rapid expansion in recent years without adequate fundraising systems in place, Cheses said. From 2008 to 2010, contributions and grants to Slifka increased by around $200,000, while its total expenses increased by nearly $300,000 to reach $2,440,244 total in 2010, according to the organization’s tax records. The center must raise over $1 million in “annual current-use funding” to maintain present spending levels, according to a job description for the new executive director — a position currently filled by interim Executive Director David Raphael.

Cheses said because of the change in leadership and reduction in staff members, the Center is struggling to operate at previous levels.

“Operationally the center is at a much weaker place than it was, but it’s also giving us a chance to re-examine our communications systems,” Cheses said.

In the past year, four full-time employees — Rabbi Jordi Gerson, Development Director Colin Weil ’88, Director of Operations Jim Hess and Sitrin — have left the organization, and part-time rabbinical intern Sarit Horwitz and Israel Fellow Amir Sagron were hired as replacements. David Slifka ’01, president of the board, declined to comment on the reason for Sitrin’s departure.

“We’ve been a little bit undersupported,” Cheses said. “The two positions [last spring] we lost were senior positions, and they were replaced with a rabbinical intern and an Israel fellow.”

Ten new members with backgrounds in financial and organizational management were selected to join the center’s 15-member Board of Trustees last spring, Cheses said, adding that the organization’s executive power has since been transferred to the board from the day-to-day staff. Ponet said he previously had administrative, fundraising and budget-planning responsibilities in addition to his rabbinical duties, but now focuses primarily on religious life because of the new board.

Raphael said the new board has also instituted procedural changes that include a new system for tracking expenditure and revenue, as well as an improved data filing system. The board has also been re-evaluating its fundraising strategies and the way finances are communicated to supporters, Raphael said.

The board is reassessing its personnel code — the rights and responsibilities of its employees — to ensure staff members are clear on policies such as allotted number of vacation days, Raphael said. The revised code will ensure more equal rights among staff of varying positions, Cheses said. All staff and board members interviewed declined to provide reasons for the personnel code changes.

Slifka’s annual operating budget is roughly $2.5 million, and its endowment is valued at approximately $20 million.

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