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Interview with Former CEO of the Jewish Foundation, Marsha Cowan

by Rhonda Spivak, Jan 1, 2018

[This interview was conducted this past September when Marsha Cowan was completing her term as CEO of the Jewish Foundation and is being published now]

Winnipeg Jewish Review: You were the first female president of the Jewish Foundation and the first female CEO of the Jewish Foundation-in this regard, you are a trailblazer.  Who was/were your female role model/s-the woman or women who most influenced you in your life?


Cowan: There are many men and women I have admired in my life, but if you want me to focus on a particular woman, I would have to point to former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. She had guts and integrity; and she was very devoted to her work. I think a lot of men and women of my age were impressed by her character and by her leadership ability. She was a role model for many people.


Winnipeg Jewish Review: Tell us about any formative Jewish experience growing up that most made you want to be involved most in the Jewish community?


Cowan: Being involved in the Jewish community wasn’t a specific, conscious pursuit. I can’t pinpoint a formative experience. It was just a natural progression from being raised in a Jewish household and being involved in Jewish organizations. Being involved as a volunteer just felt natural, the way it does for so many people in our community. It simply feels comfortable and right.


Winnipeg Jewish Review: If you had to pick only one highlight of your 13 year term as CEO of the Jewish Foundation, what would it be?


Cowan:I can’t pick just one highlight because it would diminish the importance of the others. I am proud of the matching programs we have put in place to encourage organizations in our community to open and grow their organizational endowment funds. This will bode well for their future success. I am proud of the fact that starting in 1998 and continuing every five years afterward, JFM has consistently developed and executed strategic plans. I am especially proud of the strategic plan we implemented a couple of years ago – that process and its result were key highlights. Our 50th anniversary celebrations stand out as a milestone that raised the Foundation’s profile and connected us with our past. And reaching $100 million was a key moment that would have made our founders proud. Another important highlight for me personally has been working with our Boards over the years. The Foundation attracts top-level volunteer talent. We have a great deal of wisdom and work ethic around our Board table. Our Board, committee members, staff, and fundholders care deeply about the impact the Foundation has in the community.


Winnipeg Jewish Review: You have indicated that 12% of undesignated funds that the JFM distributes go to the non-Jewish community? Does this include money from the Women's Endowment Fund?


Yes, this includes grants from the Women’s Endowment Fund. The percentage of funds that are granted to general community organizations varies from year to year based on (a) the grant applications that we receive; and (b) designations made by fundholders. In some years, the number has been higher because of special grants to projects that enrich life for Manitobans of all backgrounds – including members of the Jewish community (like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the Assiniboine Park Conservancy). When considering this percentage it’s important to remember how the Foundation works. Fundholders at a certain level are invited to designate the income from their funds to a charity of their choice. Often, our donors will choose organizations that are not specifically Jewish. Sometimes the designations are permanent; in other cases the fundholder will make a new decision every year. They often choose to use the Jewish Foundation to make those gifts because they want to practise philanthropy through a Jewish lens.


Winnipeg Jewish Review:The JFM website indicates currently indicates that the immediate Jewish community needs are camperships and tuitions:

a. Can you elaborate about these two immediate Jewish community needs? (please give as much detail as possible, including how much money already exists for camperships and tuition and also what your monetary goals are for each of these?)


Cowan: Every fall we put out a detailed list for donors who still have money to distribute from their endowment funds. We will share that list with you.


We arrive at the numbers through extensive consultation with organizations in the community.


As for the Jewish Community Campership Fund, it has a balance of about $700,000 toward a total goal of $2 million.


Winnipeg Jewish Review; How long have camperships and tuition been immediate community needs? 

Cowan: Camperships and school tuition subsidies have always been needs in the community. It’s a question of degree as conditions in the community change. We recently ran a story in our newsletter about a gentleman who attended 18 sessions of BB Camp on subsidy in 1960s and recently decided to pay it forward by opening an endowment fund, the income from which is directed to camp subsidies.


Winnipeg Jewish Review: How long into the future do you anticipate camperships and tuition to be immediate community needs?


Cowan:There is no way to accurately estimate the level of need for the long term, but we expect there will always be a degree of need. There are newcomers who arrive with empty pockets, and as economies change families will – from time to time – face financial hardship. So, there will be a level of need every year and we consult regularly with Gray Academy, Jewish Child and Family Service, BB Camp, Camp Massad, Rady JCC, and others to assess the level of need. We believe very strongly in the importance of Jewish education and Jewish camping experiences in the future health of the community.


Winnipeg Jewish Review: You have indicated that you have a strategic plan that is almost two years old and the goal is to reach 150 million? Can you elaborate on how you arrived at the figure of $150 million?


Cowan: There are three factors in our Foundation’s growth. First, we have people opening new funds and adding to existing funds every year. Second, we realize estate gifts as well as bequests from Endowment Book of Life donors who pass away. And third, our assets are invested and respond to market performance. To arrive at any goal requires studying what we already know about our donors and prospects, following trends in philanthropy, and getting good information and advice from our investment advisors. We don’t have control

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.