Podcast: After the fall of FEGS, The Jewish Board steps in

When an organization that builds things goes bankrupt, you learn to live without those things. But what do you do when an organization that builds people goes bankrupt?

When FEGS – one of the largest, well-respected social services agency in the city – imploded, sending shockwaves through the New York nonprofit community, there were many vulnerable individuals whose services hung in the balance.

Alice Tisch joined the board of trustees of The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in 2003 and became president in January 2015, just weeks before the organization decided to absorb about $75 million of programming and an additional 9,000 clients from FEGS. Tisch and the board’s vice president, Jenny Lyss, joined us in the studio to talk about the process that led to the decision to take on what they called a “daunting” task.

Much has been written in the nonprofit sector about the fall of FEGS because it served as a canary in the coal mine, alerting others in the city and the sector to infrastructure weaknesses that were prevalent at FEGS and many other human services nonprofits. The Human Services Council released a detailed reportearlier this year titled “New York Nonprofits in the wake of FEGS: A Call to Action” showing that 18 percent of human services agencies were operating at insolvency rates and 60 percent were financially distressed with no cash reserves. There were concerns about whether any nonprofit in the sector was stable enough to meet the tremendous need.

Tisch and Lyss shared with us that the decision to step in was based on the trust the board had in the organization’s senior team, which includes Chief Executive Officer David Rivel; significant, ongoing support from the city and state; and a simple compassion for those affected.

“We understand what it is to be in a position to need services and not be able to get them, and we certainly understand what it is to be a social worker waiting to give those services and not have a place … to do it, and to serve the needs,” Tisch said.

When it comes to the big decisions, a nonprofit’s board is the entity that works with senior leadership to make the final call. Lyss said The Jewish Board, and ultimately thousands of clients around the city, benefitted from having board members that “showed up.”

New York Nonprofit Media regularly interviews nonprofit leaders to discuss their professional experience, lessons learned, perspectives on the industry and more. To recommend a candidate, contact Dan Rosenblum.

You can listen to the City & State Presents podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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