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Tara Fainstein/Adam Bronstone

By BERNIE BELLAN

I wonder whether every few years or so (if this paper is still around), I’m going to be writing yet another column expressing shock over the removal of another employee of a Winnipeg Jewish organization – or synagogue.

 

 

 


I honestly don’t know whether other Jewish communities around the world engage in the kind of metaphorical bloodletting that seems to provide the likes of me with endless reams of material about which I can write. Sure – employees of organizations come and go – and for the most part, there is nothing unusual about their leaving.
But, in the case of Winnipeg, the manner in which some very high profile appointees in our community have either retired or been shown the door leads me to question the style of governance of the volunteer boards which are ostensibly responsible for how our organizations behave.

Recall for instance the manner in which Rabbi Laurence Pinsker was subjected to a public assessment of his performance at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue several years ago. The manner in which congregation members appeared before their board either defending or criticizing Rabbi Pinsker was highly unbecoming.
There have been situations in which employees of Jewish organizations have left quietly when their continued employment would have  been untenable. One case that comes to mind is that of Sandra Delorme, who had been CEO of the Simkin Centre when that facility was plunged into turmoil as the result of the tragic death of a resident who had been found to have been badly neglected there.
Delorme went on medical leave, which is often the most expeditious manner in which both an employee who needs to go and an organization that needs to deal with that employee can behave.

But, as I note in my story on Page One about the sudden departure of the  newly appointed CEO of the Jewish Foundation, Tara Fainstein – who was actually here for only a little more than nine months, what kind of message is the board of the Foundation sending in the way it has handled this entire situation?
Naturally, being a journalist, I always attempt to obtain as much information behind the scenes as I can when it comes to stories like this one. I try to speak with individuals who are close to the scene, but more often than not I’m left guessing as much as anyone else as to the true reasons for what’s just happened.
Typically, when someone is removed from a senior position, it’s either because that person wasn’t competent in their job performance, or because of personality conflicts with other individuals in that organization. Sometimes it’s because an individual’s personal behaviour would bring embarrassment to the organization if that behaviour were to become publicly known.
A few years ago, for instance, we had a situation with the artistic director of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, Michael Nathanson, who was found to have been stealing large sums of money from that particular organization. The board of the WJT had no choice but to dismiss Nathanson and, as much as I would have loved to  ”get the story” at that time, the fact that there was a criminal investigation involved was sufficient reason for the WJT board to have remained tight-lipped, I realized later.

That was not the case with the sudden departures of Adam Bronstone as CEO of the Jewish Federation nor of Tara Fainstein as CEO of the Jewish Foundation, however.
I realize there are legal implications to commenting publicly about the departure of an employee from an organization, but the manner in which both Bronstone and Fainstein left their organizations casts a pall over both the organizations involved and the reputations of the individuals concerned.

There is a fundamental problem that applies to most boards of Jewish organizations in Winnipeg: Board members are often too closely linked to those organizations. Rather than being able to provide responsible governance and oversight of the organizations with which they are involved, they see their roles as that of boosters for their organizations. And, since so much of the work associated with Jewish organizations here tends to involve fundraising and allocation of funds, members of boards who are often heavily involved in fundraising activities for their respective organizations often lose sight of their primary role, which is oversight - not management.  
The individuals who are hired to run organizations should be given the latitude to run those organizations without having to worry about interference from board members in the day-to-day running of those organizations. At the same time though, since it is inherent in almost all bureaucracies, be they public or private, that they will want to continually grow and expand in order to provide the very justification for their constantly needing more funds – and their very existence, that boards should be providing careful oversight of budgets and financial statements and asking some tough questions.
In my experience, boards of Jewish organizations here are not willing to ask important and far-reaching questions. For instance, year after year the Jewish Federation’s allocations committee has been essentially allocating the same proportion of funds to its partner agencies with only minor changes. But, how well is each of those agencies performing, one might well ask?

When I spoke with Adam Bronstone following his departure as CEO of the Jewish Federation three years ago, and in information that I was able to glean indirectly from Tara Fainstein I found that the one essential criticism that both those individuals had when they started working for their respective organizations is how much the organizational structures of both organizations needed to be greatly improved.
Both Bronstone and Fainstein had years of experience in exactly that area of bureaucratic organization. The problem though is when you try to change the way organizations are run, you can run into very stiff opposition from within those organizations. And, as I note in my article about Tara Fainstein’s dismissal on page one, and as I did when Bronstone was dismissed, both of them were essentially “outsiders”, brought in to run organizations that had grown immensely over the years.

Thus, it would have been impossible for either Bronstone or Fainstein to cultivate the alliances they would have needed, either within the bureaucracies they were brought in to run, or on the boards that had hired them, in the short times they were allowed to do their jobs, or to withstand the inevitable backbiting that was bound to occur when an outsider is brought into a senior position.
There is also a tremendous irony in that, while Bronstone was supposedly held partly responsible for the CJA’s not having reached its fundraising goal while he was Federation CEO, the CJA has never come close since his departure to reaching the amounts it raised prior to Bronstein’s hiring (when Gail Asper was chair of the CJA campaigns in 2012 and 2013). The Federation’s campaign director for 2017-18 also lasted only one year. (She told me that she will not comment about the circumstances surrounding her departure from that position.) So, removing Bronstone as CEO has had  no apparent effect on improving the CJA’s performance.
As for Fainstein – the Jewish Foundation’s total endowment stands at a record level: over $118 million, as of the end of the 2017 financial year. She simply wasn’t in her position long enough for anyone to know whether her being here would have had any impact upon the Foundation’s bottom line, or whether the changes she was advocating would have been to the Foundation’s long term advantage.
What we do know is that there were individuals who were working to undermine both Bronstone and Fainstein. Next time, my advice to the boards of both the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Foundation is this: Don’t go looking outside of Winnipeg for a new CEO. Hire someone who you know has strong support already from other employees in those organizations and who has cultivated strong alliances among board members. You’re clearly less interested in someone’s organizational experience than in how they are able to develop personal relationships within your organizations. That way you can save yourselves a lot of money hiring professional recruitment agencies, then having to pay considerable sums in severance settlements after you’ve hired someone from outside Winnipeg.

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