Forensic Accounting

Early on in my dissertation research I noticed that, in the 1960s and '70s, JCCs in New York City began to receive money from the government to pay for programs like Head Start preschool classes and senior citizens centers. The question for me then became, why? Why would a Jewish agency funded by private Jewish philanthropy and devoted to serving the local Jewish community take public money? Especially considering that public money must be used to serve the public, not only one distinct group of Americans.

I had a few hypotheses:

  1. They needed the money. Maybe, because of suburbanization, fewer people were joining the JCC and so they were making less money from membership dues? Maybe, because of suburbanization again, fewer people were living in New York and so fewer donations were being made to support the city's Jewish communal organizations?
  2. They wanted to provide more social services. Maybe the social workers that staffed and lead these JCCs wanted to improve the lives of their members? Maybe they wanted to improve their communities? Maybe they believed it was more important to take care of the public good and welfare of society than to maintain the JCC as an exclusively Jewish space?

I suspected that the answer was not so simple, and that the truth would be a combination of several of these hypotheses. While I could read about the opinions, decisions, and actions of JCC workers and leaders in the minutes of JCC board meetings, or in their annual reports, or in professional journal articles they wrote about their experiences, I could only find information about money in one place: their annual accounting audits.  

That's how I found myself, in February 2015, digging through archival boxes filled with budget spreadsheets from four different JCCs located throughout Manhattan and the Bronx: Educational Alliance, the YM-YWHA of the Bronx, the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood, and Bronx House. I took thousands of pictures of legal-sized paper divided into elaborate tables filled with numbers. I had no idea what I was looking for, nor what I was looking at, so I just snapped the photos and hoped that I could figure it all out later.  

A year and a half later, I finally reached the point in the dissertation where I was ready to write about how the JCC financed their programs. About a month ago I began to read through the documents I'd photographed, and I realized that I had a lot to learn before I could understand what I was looking at. It wasn't just terminology like "a/c" (accounts current) or conventions (fiscal years versus calendar years) but also basic mathematical and economic principles. 

I never expected that, in becoming a professional historian, I would find myself practicing a form of forensic accounting. My work may not be intended for the court of law, but I am piecing together how funds were made and spent in order to establish evidence for an argument. As someone who is not particularly facile with mathematics, accounting, or economics, I would not have expected to enjoy this foray into quantitative analysis. Surprisingly, I’ve actually loved it! It has forced me to learn new skills (especially in Excel), brush up on old ones (basic math calculations), and to think in new ways about the value and purchasing power of the dollar. So this week, I will be posting a series about how to work with historical budgets and accounting documents—particularly those created by the agencies of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York (FJP)—and how to analyze them to support historical arguments.

Stay tuned!