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Op-Ed: Innovation is great, but it means nothing without results

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SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — I have enjoyed tremendously the recent stream of articles on various points of view on the nature of innovation in the Jewish not-for-profit world. From my perspective, it is an important discussion for the community of stakeholders in this world — and it is important for them to have it in as public a fashion as contemporary communication technologies allow.

What I have to offer to the conversation is an opinion I have formulated over a number of years in my role as a Jewish philanthropy professional. And while it is absolutely true that this opinion informs my leadership at the Jim Joseph Foundation (and that it is my conviction, really), the views expressed herein are entirely my own and are not propounded as an official or informal position of the foundation.

In my grant-making work, I decidedly favor crafting theories about proposed initiatives in an effort to envision how they might actually unfold in the world. That means that I am a proponent of rigorously monitoring grant implementation against a set of explicitly stated goals and objectives — and that careful, continuous evaluation of progress being made in any particular project is both possible and essential to effective philanthropy.

In this formula, I am asserting a belief that performance of Jewish not-for-profit organizations should be highly valued.

I profess this bias: Grant performance can be assessed with objective, credible information, which is useful for understanding what results have been achieved. That information is both relevant to funder and grantee decision making, and constructive as a means to promote accountability.

Much of the exchange about Jewish not-for-profit innovation that we have been reading raises questions about such matters as the amount and adequacy of funding provided, the duration for which philanthropic resources are committed, the degree to which funders cooperate in providing “staged” capital, and the roles funders play in stewarding resources granted.

Fair enough; these are legitimate issues. And I regard the concern of my Jim Joseph Foundation colleague Adene Sacks about the lack of a system for pushing capital through to innovators seamlessly as critically important.

But until we accept performance as the end game that “rules the roost,” the very best we can hope for are sporadic, possibly spectacular but ultimately unsustainable achievements. And until a premium is placed on performance, I predict that success will be attained by only a relatively few innovators who actually possess the rare blend of personal charisma, “insider” interpersonal relationships and serendipity that can lead to prosperity.

Here is an alternative vision:

Together, funders and innovators could agree that any significant investment of philanthropic resources should be grounded in a clear picture of what constitutes success. They explicitly would articulate specific benchmarks as indicators of progress in pursuit of desirable outcomes. The compact would stipulate that innovators who produce results should be recognized and rewarded for their accomplishments with a concentrated effort to secure additional funding for the purpose of scaling the initiative that has demonstrated the ability to follow through on its promise. Performance is paramount. Insisting on it is the standard against which we all judge our effectiveness. 

I am guessing there a number of funders who genuinely believe that the preceding paragraph describes how they go about their philanthropy. Yet I would also speculate that if we queried grantees and asked them to honestly assess whether the description represents their actual experience with funders, a precious few would answer affirmatively.

In all of my years as a professional working in Jewish philanthropy, only recently have I started to encounter a growing number of colleagues who acknowledge both that results matter and that reasonable resources must be allocated to track — and to sustain — organizational performance.

I rarely sense that funders bring a performance orientation to their support of innovators. Rather it is creativity, novelty, trend setting or the power of personal persuasion that seem to induce funders to grant money to innovators.

For many these are sufficient reasons for grant making, especially for individual funders who themselves made personal fortunes as risk takers and innovators, but this pattern of funding does not bode well for the sector.

Any number of factors will likely distract funders from participating in the organized, rational, typically collaborative enterprise that is necessary to stabilize and scale innovations over the long haul.

Foundations and funders too frequently succumb to pressure to grant innovators resources because a particularly talented individual or a heavily hyped organization professes to be able to “transform” Jewish life.

It is tempting to support passionate, self-sacrificing Jewish innovators whose personalities attract attention and whose well-conceived ideas are cleverly promulgated as life changing.

Surely there is no efficacious way to presage any innovator’s eventual success, given that as Lucy Bernholz at Philanthropy 2173 astutely notes, “There remain no industry standards; there are few points of leverage for organizational outsiders to push for greater results or improved reporting; and the explicit (and implicit) connections between inputs, operations, and outcomes are difficult for most foundation personnel to map.”

But ultimately, in contemplating which Jewish innovators to support with how much funding over what period of time and at what stage of the innovation’s development, it will not serve us well to fund either on impulse or emotion.

Difficult as it may be, we are right to pose right at the outset the most basic, quintessentially Jewish questions: “So what? Will this work? And what difference will this make?”

(Charles "Chip" Edelsberg is the executive director of the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation.)

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