Menu JTA Search

GUEST SIDEKICK: Invest in innovation

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

What is now a crisis of economy must not become a crisis of vision. The recent economic downturn gives us a rare opportunity to rethink the way the Jewish community is organized. The extreme contraction of resources, which we believe has only just begun, forces us all to have difficult and often painful conversations about our philanthropic and communal priorities.

Those of us whose time and resources are devoted to strengthening the Jewish people understand the necessity and magnitude of this challenge. Despite its hardships, we welcome these conversations as a means of ensuring a vital and meaningful Jewish future.

As this process of communal re-envisioning begins, we’ve been hearing calls for greater consolidation and a return to the more centralized infrastructure of yesteryear.  Drawing upon our experience in two foundations that have prioritized innovation in their grant making, we respectfully disagree with this view.

We believe that the young, and often small, nonprofits that have emerged in the past decade, and the very de-centralization they reflect, are here to stay.  We believe that this interconnected network of smaller, niche-based organizations reflects the organizational transformation now under way in American culture: a revolution in the way that people connect, organize and affiliate, brought about by technological advancements that have dramatically shaped our ways of looking at the world. That revolution already has utterly transformed so much of our lives — the way we shop, network, share information, learn and teach. We don’t believe there’s any going back.

We come to this perspective both from our experiences as professionals at foundations that invest in the future of Jewish community and from new research that is revealing the contours of an emerging Jewish organizational landscape. As the American economy went into its precipitous decline in the fall of 2008, our foundations partnered with Jumpstart, an incubator and think tank for sustainable Jewish innovation, to conduct a survey of American Jewish start-ups: nonprofit initiatives founded in 1998 or later with a budget of up to $2 million.

We are releasing the full report analyzing our findings this week as "The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape." Our report was designed to provide a comprehensive snapshot of Jewish start-ups so that nonprofit leaders and funders alike might better understand the organizations that have ascended over the past decade and what they have to teach us about the Jewish future.

The report makes evident that over the past 10 years, an organic, grass-roots, self-organizing ecosystem of Jewish initiatives has emerged parallel to the existing Jewish communal infrastructure. We found more than 300 geographically diverse organizations that in 2008 alone reached more than 400,000 people and represented a $100 million economy.  Far from being a fringe phenomenon for outliers, these organizations engage and integrate populations that existing Jewish organizations have struggled to reach as well as people who are highly connected to traditional Jewish communal life.

Similarly, participation in these organizations should not be understood as a solely youth-centric trend: These organizations integrate participants under 45 — Millennials and Generation Xers — with a healthy proportion of older constituents. Taken together, this array of organizations, with disparate missions and purposes, offers a multitude of access points to Jewish life that resonate across generations and degrees of “affiliation” within the Jewish community.

These organizations have helped to foster a culture of empowered Jewish consumers who pick and choose from existing options and even create their own paths to Judaism and Jewish life. They operate in a global marketplace of ideas, where a Jewish organization can survive only if it is competitive with the best offerings in the “secular” world. They demonstrate an eagerness to utilize new ways of organizing people and to adopt new technologies, which most manage to do on shoestring budgets. In fact, more than half of the organizations in the survey have annual operating budgets under $150,000.

Rather than concern ourselves with the small scale of these organizations or the potential for waste or overlap among them, we need to view them as the “long tail” of organizational engagement, identical to the phenomenon analyzed so powerfully in Chris Anderson’s book of the same name. As Anderson teaches us, the world is undergoing a cultural transformation that is eroding the power of top-down, one-size-fits-all, large-scale companies and organizations. There will always be some “blockbusters” in the organizational world, but we also must pay real attention to the presence, staying power and impact of the multitude of smaller, niche-based organizations. In the aggregate, these organizations represent a serious component of the Jewish communal infrastructure, providing customized and intimate access points to Judaism for vast swaths of people who expect their Jewish lives to resemble the lives they lead elsewhere.

The dilemma for the innovation sector in this troubling economic climate is to maintain the momentum it has built over the past decade. Unlike many traditional Jewish organizations that have been struggling with demand — fretting over numbers and trying to retrofit their organizations to attract new and younger audiences — the innovative organizations have a different problem: one of capacity. Nearly every young organization we have funded over the past few years has been challenged to find the resources to deal with an ever-increasing demand for their programs and services.

Just as these organizations were successfully building the Jewish future, the Jewish community’s resources bottomed out. As a testament to their entrepreneurialism, however, leaders in this sector already have begun to implement cost-saving measures, in collaboration and strategic partnerships with other organizations, in order to trim administrative expenses without compromising their respective missions and visions.

Our charge as funders is to advocate on behalf of these innovative organizations as the Jewish community begins the process of re-imagining its future. Support for the innovation sector is not just about providing funding for particular organizations — though, to be sure, these organizations could use many more champions and supporters. It is also about understanding the cultural transformation now under way in the Jewish world — a transformation that will not be stopped by the economic crisis — and about shaping a Jewish community for the 21st century that integrates this understanding into its structure and philosophy.

For those concerned with the vitality of the Jewish community, which must constantly renew itself to adapt to changing conditions, fostering an environment of Jewish empowerment and creativity is not a luxury but a necessity.

(Felicia Herman is the executive director of the Natan Fund. Dana Raucher is the executive director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.)

NEXT STORY