November 19, 2018

Three reasons to pay attention to the ZOA’s leadership fight

When the Zionist Organization of America’s (ZOA) delegates gather in Philadelphia on Sunday, March 9, to kick off the organization’s 97th national convention, they’ll be faced with a choice between the two men who want to lead the staunchly pro-Israel organization.

On one side stands current ZOA president Morton Klein, who has run the organization since 1994 and is seeking another term. On the other stands Steve Goldberg, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who is currently national vice chairman of the ZOA’s board.

The issues at play in this fight over the ZOA’s top job have been reported in The Journal and elsewhere: Klein is standing by his leadership, pointing to his success in reviving the organization when it faced bankruptcy and his work since. Goldberg has accused Klein of corruption, self-enrichment and mismanagement, and claims that the ZOA has lost its position among pro-Israel organizations.

Two right-leaning columnists in the Jerusalem Post have staked out opposing sides in this fight over the ZOA, suggesting that this is a hotly watched contest – but for most Jews, this battle barely matters. The ZOA, a right-wing organization, represents a small slice of the American Jewish community, and any political differences that exist between Klein and Goldberg are minimal. (Both oppose the current peace negotiations with the Palestinians; neither has any faith in the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability.)

Still, there are at least three good reasons why engaged American Jews – even those who don’t much care for the ZOA – should pay attention to this contest, if only as an object lesson of the challenges that face all nonprofits today.

1. It’s a reminder that even large organizations are actually governed by tiny numbers of engaged laypeople.

The ZOA claims to have somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 members. In his quest to unseat Klein, Goldberg recently circulated a web-based poll to about 1,000 email addresses of ZOA supporters. According to Goldberg, 20 percent of those emails bounced back, and only 118 individuals (about 14 percent of those who received the email) responded to the survey. Goldberg told the San Diego Jewish World that 78 percent voted for him, while only 22 percent supported Klein.

Not too many more actual votes will be cast in the official election, set to be held in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon. About 200 delegates are expected to attend, according to ZOA Executive Director David Drimer. (Those 200 delegates might represent as many as 5,000 members, according to the ZOA constitution.)

Goldberg has made his case aggressively in Jewish community media outlets as well as in social media-driven campaign messaging. Klein, who has not faced a challenger in 20 years, has also hired an election campaign consultant, and has his own campaign Web site.

And yet, despite all this back and forth public messaging, there’s a real possibility that it might have no effect on the final election result in Philadelphia. The future of the ZOA will come down to the opinions of a small subset of its members and supporters.

2. It’s a reminder of how hard it can be to maintain a national organization.

The convention is – not coincidentally, Goldberg says – set to be held in Klein’s hometown of Philadelphia. Goldberg has made the case that voting in the ZOA’s election should be opened up to delegates unable to travel to Philadelphia, but Drimer and ZOA Board Chairman Michael Goldblatt rejected the suggestion, saying that in-person voting is required by the organization’s constitution.

The location of this convention is but one illustration of how this battle – between an East Coast established leader and a West Coast upstart – shows the difficulties associated with running a truly national Jewish nonprofit organization. Los Angeles is home to the U.S.’s second-largest Jewish community, yet the ZOA has consistently failed in recent years to establish a meaningful presence here. It hired and fired a string of regional directors — the last person to hold the post has sued the ZOA for wrongful termination – and ZOA has since moved its West coast regional office to the Bay Area.

Goldberg’s base of support is centered in L.A., and yet interest in the organization or in the upcoming election is paltry at best.

“Nobody cares,” Mara Kochba, a public relations professional from Los Angeles who supports Goldberg’s candidacy, said on March 6. “I care, and I’m doing this because I want to help Steve help save the ZOA.”

3. It’s a reminder that if you don’t do the little things right, it’s hard to do accomplish anything big.

Depending on whom you believe, the ZOA today is either (a) an established organization whose leaders have engaged in an attempt to conceal basic information from the IRS and from donors; (b) an organization that is simply having difficulty differentiating itself in the 21st century, with the arrival on the scene of new competing organizations; or (c) an organization whose current leader successfully revived it two decades ago and is now being targeted unfairly for practices that are common throughout the Jewish nonprofit world.

There are other minor issues at play in this election – Goldberg has raised questions about Klein’s management style; Klein has expressed doubts about Goldberg’s fundraising ability – but more than any other single issue, the delegates in Philadelphia will have to decide whose story to believe about the ZOA’s failure to file three consecutive years of required forms with the IRS and the subsequent loss of its tax-exempt status, which has since been reinstated.

Goldberg has accused Klein of enriching himself at the ZOA’s expense, assailing Klein for collecting millions in total compensation – $1.25 million in 2008 alone, and an average of $685,000 over the last five years. He further accuses Klein of first attempting to cover up the size of his compensation by not filing the required forms with the IRS. When the ZOA lost its tax-exempt status because of its failure to file those forms for three consecutive years, Goldberg assails Klein for not actively informing donors and others involved in the ZOA of its changed status.

Klein, for his part, has argued that his compensation package is comparable to those earned by leaders of other Jewish nonprofits, and has said that the ZOA is only one among many nonprofits that got in trouble with the IRS when the agency changed its 990 reporting rules. And Klein claims to have done nothing wrong by not actively informing donors of the change in the ZOA’s status.

Was the ZOA’s failure to file forms with the IRS due to malfeasance or mistake? That’s a question for the delegates in Philadelphia. For everyone else, though, the ZOA’s tax status woes – which have remained in the news since 2012 – are a clear lesson in what happens when an organization fails to manage its operations: it gets distracted from its basic mission.