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marsha cowanBy BERNIE BELLAN
Marsha Cowan is now in her 13th year as CEO of the Jewish Foundation.

It’s a tribute to the Foundation’s stability that, in its 53-year history, it’s had only three individuals at the helm: the late Izzy Peltz (who was running both the Winnipeg Jewish Community Council, forerunner of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, and the Jewish Foundation at the same time – until Bob Freedman took over from him at the WJCC. At that point Izzy moved full time into running the Jewish Foundation.) Peltz’s successor at the foundation was David Cohen.
Back in the day – when Izzy Peltz was in charge at the Foundation, it was a much smaller operation than it is today. It was essentially a two-person office: Izzy and his secretary, Jean Boorman. (Interestingly, Jean’s daughter-in-law, Patty Boorman, who has also been with the Foundation for quite a few years, is now Director of Operations there.)
Recently, Marsha Cowan announced that she will be retiring from her position at the end of 2017, although she will be remaining on in a different capacity, both to assist the new CEO in transitioning into the role and, according to a Foundation press release, to “work with select fundholders and prospects to grow their endowments at the Foundation.”
We sat down with Marsha a few weeks ago to talk about her time at the Foundation – how she became involved, how it’s grown under her tenure, and what she looks forward to doing once she’s retired.
Marsha explained that she “started as a volunteer” with the Foundation years ago, and “sat on the board for quite a long time.” She “was president from 1994-98”, she noted.
Interestingly, the board of the Foundation was bigger back when Marsha was president, she noted. She was also the first female president of the Foundation. “Since then,” she observed, “we’ve had two more: Yhetta Gold and Anita Wortzman”.
I asked Marsha what she had done prior to her becoming involved with the Foundation – other than her being married to the late Ed Cowan and mother to three children.
“I taught school,” she answered - at River Heights School (before it became ´Ecole River Heights). Interestingly, she noted that she was “Ian Barnes’ (the current CFO of the Foundation) home room teacher”.
For a time following her time as a teacher Marsha stayed home to raise her three children, “but I did want to go back to work; I wasn’t sure in what capacity. I worked for a little while in my husband’s business (at a chartered accountancy firm. Ed Cowan was a Chartered Accountant who had gone into manufacturing.) until he died and I was volunteering working for a very long time at the Foundation – it was very near and dear to me.”
It was when David Cohen announced in 2004 that he would be retiring as the Foundation’s executive director, that “someone approached me,” she explained, and said: “Why don’t you apply for the job?’
“My first reaction was: ‘Oh, don’t be silly.’ But I decided that you never know – it’s the old ‘fork in the road’. I thought about it and thought: ‘I’ll never know if I don’t try.’ I went down the road and it’s been a phenomenal 12 years. I absolutely have loved every minute of it. The Foundation is obviously very dear to me and the work that we do…we have doubled the amount of money we’re distributing into the community every year.”
I observed that the Foundation’s endowment has grown spectacularly from when it “reached its nadir in 2009 following the stock market crash” of 2008, “when it was down to around $57million” to the point where it’s now over $108 million.
“Last year we distributed $3.6 million,” Marsha said proudly. “It’s double what it used to be.”
“You’re required to distribute a certain percentage of your total endowment”, I observed.
“Three and a half per cent,” Marsha explained, “but we’re distributing four percent.”
The Foundation is also backed up by a “reserve”, Marsha noted – “two years’ distribution…so that if we have a rocky year “ the charities the Foundation supports “don’t suffer. They still get a distribution.”
As far as what proportion of the Fund’s allocations go to Jewish as opposed to non-Jewish recipients, Marsha explained that approximately “twelve percent” of the total amount of the allocations have traditionally gone to non-Jewish recipients.
She went on to say that the creation and growth of organizational endowments allows those organizations that do receive financial assistance from the Foundation to be able to rely on that assistance year-in and year-out. This is as a result of not only specific organizational  endowments being created, but also from having “donors  making permanent commitments to them.”
I asked what the breakdown of designated as opposed to undesignated funds at the Foundation was. “Very roughly – undesignated is about 20 percent,” Marsha answered.
She went on to explain that in the past few years the Foundation has instituted some new giving matching programs, including “FundMatch” and the “BERVIN Incentive”.
Under the FundMatch program, organizations receive matching money from the JFM for new gifts made to their organizational endowments. An endowment that reaches the first tier of $54,000 from one or more donors will see the Foundation match that amount with an additional $18,000. “Matching monies are provided in tiers,” Marsha added, “with the organizational endowment growing to a potential $720,000 in new money and receiving $108,000 in addition from the Foundation donors. A new gift of $54,000 from one or more donors who give at least $54,000 toward an endowment for a specific organization will see the Foundation match that amount with an additional $18,000.
“It goes in tiers up to $720,000,” Marsha added. “At that point the (endowment for the) organization will have contributed $720,000 and received $108,000 in addition from us. This program was designed to encourage organizations within our own (Jewish) community to start putting money into an endowment for their own purposes.”
I asked how that program has gone.
“It’s been hugely successful,” Marsha suggested. Traditionally, “organizations didn’t save for the future. This has really turned everyone’s head.”
FundMatch was launched five years ago, she noted. (According to the Foundation website, the following organizations are now participating in FundMatch: Camp Massad Manitoba; Chabad Lubavitch of Winnipeg;

Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre at Syd Glow Place; Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada; Jewish National Fund (Manitoba & Saskatchewan Region); Rose & Max Rady Jewish Community Centre; and the Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble.)
The “BERVIN Incentive” is somewhat different in that it encourages organizations to build up their endowments at the Foundation to $1 million.. Again, according to the Foundation website, “When a participating Winnipeg Jewish organization adds $720,000 in new money to its new or existing organizational endowment fund with the JFM, it triggers a $108,000 incentive contribution to their endowment from the Berdie & Irvin Cohen (BERVIN) Incentive Fund….Once participating organizations reach the $1 million mark in new money, not only do they trigger the incentive contribution to their endowment, they also earn the right to withdraw capital from their endowment fund in the event of a ‘rainy day’ or a ‘special project’ .”

At the present time three organizations are participating in this program: B’nai Brith Jewish Community Camp; Jewish Child and Family Service; and Winnipeg Board of Jewish Education.

I suggested to Marsha that “there are two ways the Foundation has grown. One is through investments – investments have grown appreciably (since 2009); and the other is through increased donations.”

Touching upon the considerable growth in the value of the Foundation’s investments, Marsha  explained this has been largely attributable to there having been a change in investment strategy, from “active investing” to “passive investing”. She said though that she didn’t want to get into that because it’s quite complex and it came about as a result of being “studied by our investment people committee for a very long time”.
With regard to the growth in the number of donations to the Foundation and the amount being donated, I observed that there’s been an almost “exponential growth” in that area. I further suggested that the success of initiatives such as the “Book of Life” have brought a huge amount more attention to the Foundation, in turn leading to even more individuals and families choosing to give to it.
Two areas in which the Foundation has had a very significant impact upon the lives of many members of our community, according to Marsha, have been seniors’ transportation and camperships.
Aided by a contribution of $1 million from the Dan Tallman family, the Foundation is now providing “about $50,000 a year for seniors’ transportation and programming,” she said.
Similarly, the Foundation “has taken a significant role in camperships”, aiming eventually to have an endowment of $2 million toward that end. (There is approximately $735,000 already designated for the campership endowment, Marsha noted.)

“These are things we didn’t do before,” she explained, “but we have the money to do it now.”
“We’re taking the lead on building this campership fund because the need is probably closer to $80,000 a year,” Marsha suggested, “so we have a lot of donors who top up the need.”
(I asked whether the Rady JCC is included among the Foundation’s camperships. Marsha said of course they were included; however, she explained that Gayle Waxman, executive director of the Rady JCC, has told her recently that, at the present time, the Rady JCC is sufficiently funded for camperships as a result of the tremendous success of its sports dinners over the years, so Gayle had suggested the money from the Foundation go to the other Jewish camps in the province.)

Turning to her future plans – as mentioned, Marsha will continue to be involved with the Foundation even after her retirement as CEO, focusing entirely on donors. She noted that the Foundation board has been planning for her succession for two years now.
“We have hired a headhunter. She’s with an executive search firm and they are in the process of doing  their due diligence,” Marsha explained. (At the time that the interview was conducted, which was on May 17, no advertisement had yet appeared for the position of Foundation CEO, but we note that the May 27 issue of the Free Press did carry an ad seeking applicants for the position. As well, the ad appears on page 3 of this issue.)

As far as relaxing a bit more, “I’ll cut back my hours a little bit”, she suggested. “I’ll go see my children and grandchildren kids (all of whom live elsewhere) more.”

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