By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO—Steven Morris, the new chief executive officer of the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County, in a sense owes his family name to the Federation system, as well as some of his most intimate values. Long a Federation volunteer and donor in Denver, Colorado, he brings to his new post knowledge he acquired as an MBA, an accountant, and as the owner of eight McDonald’s franchises with a total of 500 employees.
Morris’s love for the Federation reflects the deep appreciation his late father, Michael, a Tolpolcany, Slovakia, native who survived Auschwitz, felt for the system that helped him settle in Chicago after World War II, providing for him an American foster family who eventually adopted him and gave him the last name Morris. All the members of Michael Morris’s biological family had been murdered by the Nazis.
Michael Morris did not tell his children much else about his experiences surviving the Holocaust, preferring like many other survivors to put the nightmare behind him and to concentrate instead on building a new life. As part of that process he had the Auschwitz tattoo removed from his arm, leaving a scar.
Eighteen years old on his arrival in America in 1947, Michael Morris with the help of his adoptive family became a chemical engineer and learned to speak flawless, unaccented, English. In 1955, he married Diane Effron, a third-generation American with Eastern European roots, and not long after the future UJF CEO was born in 1958, the family decided to move west to pursue a new business opportunity: a McDonald’s franchise in Denver. Steven Morris has two younger siblings.
Steven and his brother and sister grew up within the bosom of the Jewish community in Denver. His father affiliated with Beth Joseph Synagogue, a traditional congregation that Steven describes as a “little to the left of Orthodox.” The late Rabbi Daniel Goldberger was influential in life. Not only did he officiate at his bar mitzvah, but also at his wedding to Amy.
“He was such a great spiritual leader for me,” Steven Morris reflected. “I thought he was really what you want a rabbi to be when you are in your formative years. He was easy going, he was friendly, easy to talk to. He didn’t intimidate you. I was actually friends with his son, and used to go over to their house. He was just a cool rabbi, a really hip kind of cool guy , but a very meaningful and great teacher.”
When Goldberger left Beth Joseph for the Hebrew Educational Alliance, a Conservative congregation, the Morris family followed. Later, HEA would move from west Denver, where Jews originally had settled in that city, to south Denver, in response to the Jewish community’s changing demographics. Morris, who by then had earned a BA in economics from the University of Colorado and an MBA from New York University, assisted the congregation in planning and understanding the economic aspects of the relocation.
Morris had attended Jewish day school as an elementary school student but later switched to the public schools. He participated in a six-week trip to Israel as a high school student, whetting his appetite for a more extensive “Junior Year Abroad” while in college. It was at Hebrew University’s Rothberg School of International Studies that he met Amy, who was there on a similar program from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. They dated for five years, mostly in a long-distance relationship, before they were married.
The couple today has three children: Sarah, 23, who has a master's degree; Jonathan, 20, a junior at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Ari, who continues to live with Amy, in Denver, while he finishes his last year of high school.
In 1984, Steven Morris was back in Denver, when the Jewish Federation there held an emergency meeting to tell donors about Operation Moses, the program in which Israel paid a head tax for each Ethiopian Jew it rescued and then flew the ransomed Jews to the Israeli homeland. Money desperately was needed not only for the ransom, but also to absorb the Ethiopians into a new way of life.
“There are certain things that you can picture in your past—amazing—and there are other things you can’t recall at all,” Morris reflected during an interview at his office at the United Jewish Federation offices in the Kearny Mesa area. “I can remember standing there … I know my dad was standing right next to me, I can remember that so clearly.” Still a young man—working as an accountant—he pledged what for him at the time was a major donation of $500, thereby sharing a special moment with his father, who once was in desperate need of rescuing himself. It was a magical, transformative moment.
From then on, Morris made the Jewish Federation the focus of his Jewish charitable enterprises, receiving a leadership award in 1986 and becoming involved in various aspects of Federation work, including participation on the Young Leadership Cabinet of the national United Jewish Appeal (UJA), today known as the United Jewish Communities (UJC). Additionally, he served on the national board of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)
“I went on various missions and was very lucky to travel around and see the work that UJA does,” Morris said. “I always came back to Federation but I did get involved in some of the beneficiary agencies such as the Jewish Family Service, on whose board I served, and the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education.”
From one McDonald’s franchise, his father had built up to the ownership of ten franchises, but one should not make the mistake of assuming that the father simply passed on his ownership interest to his son. McDonald’s does not allow this; no one is permitted to acquire a franchise unless he has undergone a full course of training in what McDonald’s calls Hamburger University.
“I have a bachelor’s degree in hamburgerology,” said Morris. “that is a real degree; I have a real diploma from Hamburger University.” He described the course of study as a “tremendous program stressing corporate business training and discipline.”
“Coincidentally, when I was just starting to go into this program, my father was diagnosed with cancer and he eventually sold a number of stores. After some transition period, I got certified to be a franchisee in my own right – because you can’t walk into that business because you’re somebody’s kid; you have to prove yourself and that is really an important principle that they have held to in order to protect the brand. I eventually bought three stores from my dad’s estate.”
Most of Morris’s franchises were in suburban areas of Denver. “It really gave me a great experience working with all types of people,” he said. Among the 500 employees at
Go to the top of next column
the peak were “all kinds of ethnicities and people from all over the world—Christians, Mormons, Muslims and all kinds
of people. It really gave me a great exposure, and an opportunity to be close and friendly with people who are not Jewish. To this day, I am very friendly with people who are devout Christians. I think it has added to my life.”
Morris said he took McDonald’s motto of QSC—quality, service and cleanliness—very seriously, and “I was recognized repeatedly for running restaurants at the top level of performance.“ Though it was the name McDonald on the door, not his, “it was part of me in a sense, and I can’t accept anything less than excellence for myself.”
He said he understood immediately “that I couldn’t do it alone, so I had to have from the top down a high performing team and I was fortunate to be able to do that from within. My team was pretty much built with people who were hard working and I gave them a chance and together we grew the business. …”
In 2003, after 15 years as a franchisee, Morris sold his stores back to the McDonald's corporation, convinced “I had really done all that I really wanted to do in that business, and accomplished all that I wanted.” He felt ready to “capitalize on what I built and to start another chapter in my life. That is something I am drawn to, re-creating myself in a way. I am motivated by new and exciting challenges.”
He did some consulting, invested venture capital, helped establish the Panera Bread Company brand in Pheonix, invested in a natural food company, and served for three years as the annual campaign chair for the Denver Federation, working with Federation executive Doug Susserman, whom he considers a UJF mentor.
Morris still is in the information gathering phase of his new job, a necessary prerequisite before he starts recommending any new programs or structural changes for the Federation. So, in our interview, he was reluctant to discuss any changes he might favor. However, he did point out that San Diego shares some characteristics with Denver and other western cities that will make the UJF job here a challenge.
“There are a lot of transplants, a lot of people who are not really moving here to look for Jewish community, but, like many people, something happens in their lives and they eventually need the Jewish community in some way—a lot of it based on raising families,“ he said.
Additionally, he noted, the community is “geographically dispersed, largely unaffiliated, and intermarried.”
Of some 80,000-90,000 Jews in San Diego, only 4,000 give money to the Federation’s annual campaign, and “that’s not good enough,” he said. “I think this is a fairly common experience in the west and I think Federations around the country are struggling with how to evolve, how to re-create themselves, in a way that is compelling to the Jewish community and in a way that people perceive and see the value that Federation is providing to the community.”
While serving as a campaign chair in Denver, Morris said he had success with “Total Choice Tzedakah,” a program in which donors could direct their giving to special funds or to the unrestricted funds.
“We always used to say donors have choice whether you enable it through you or not,” Morris reflected. “It is a reality and they have proven that by giving gifts directly to all kinds of important causes locally and around the world. I am a donor myself and I feel some of the same issues—I want to see and touch and understand what I am giving to. I feel motivated by unrestricted giving to the Federation, but I understand everyone does not feel that same way. We’ve got to build trust, we’ve got to build value perception of the Federation, so when someone is approached to give they understand that’s important, that we really can’t survive without that.”
How can the Federation connect with people who have remained outside its orbit? I asked.
The answer, responded Morris, “speaks to how structurally we need to do business. It takes resources and people. We need to have a different way of relating to and touching donors. There has been success in some communities around really having a donor relationship manager or an account executive—it can be a lay person or a professional, someone who knows you and becomes your point person. This is someone who helps you realize your philanthropic passions and you only can do that if you really understand what the donor cares about. So it is a tall order, to create an organization and a discipline around donor care and donor conversations, and not just calling once a year when you want a gift.”
He added: “When a generous donor is approached and has a real what I call ‘Jewish conversation’ around the needs of the Jewish world, generous donors respond – they have good hearts – and they are not going to be only motivated by the one or two causes that really get them excited.”
Morris said he knows “how to manage people and the systems that have to be in place to manage the kind of organization that can do these things. “
“Yeah, it’s a lot to try, and it’s very aggressive, but I don’t think we have a choice,” he said. “We can’t just count on the few who have been so generous in the past to keep us going. The newer generations—young generations—are not giving in the same way and they are not motivated by the same things, and the way you interact with them is totally different than with the people who might be closer to the Holocaust experience and remember a time when we weren’t so secure and accepted in society as we are today.
“We are getting a little complacent in some ways because we are so easily accepted today,” Morris said. “Jews can move anywhere they want, pretty much, in San Diego and not have a problem. That was not the case relatively recently.”
Morris said for himself an important order of business will be “to convince the community that the Federation should be given the chance to be the important part of the community that it has been in the past and that it can be in the future, and to be open, be involved, voice your ideas, your concerns, be a part of whatever process we undertake to re-create, reenergize this enterprise called the United Jewish Federation.”