Op-Ed: Breaking funding stereotypes to meet today’s challenges


JERUSALEM (JTA)  — The computer chip is nearly synonymous with Intel, the world’s leading computer chip manufacturer. Interestingly, this corporate powerhouse came to rely on Israel for its front-line research. As recounted in “Start-Up Nation,” a book by Saul Singer and Daniel Senor, Israeli engineers had new ideas to build a more powerful chip, but their corporate leadership from abroad was reluctant to forego their old ways. The Israeli engineers prevailed and, as a result, Intel pulled even further ahead in their field.

We in the Jewish community can learn a great deal from Intel’s decision to scrap an old process in order to pursue new ways of doing business. This is true across the organizational board: local federations, private foundations and start-up organizations.

Primarily we should recognize that like Intel’s management team, we often project our preconceptions of how things “should be” on new opportunities that arise. As such, the way we stereotype institutions according to labels — “federation” or “foundation” or “start-up” — often leads us to assume both the form they should take in operations as well as their function in the community.

We assume that federations are consensus-driven communal institutions that move cautiously and deliberately without creativity, while private foundations are independent entities, and sometimes eccentric, that act quickly and by fiat, often placing the whims and fancies of their board members ahead of the needs and desires of the community at-large. We see start-ups as small organizations that meet the narrow interests of their members, but lack both the capacity and the desire to address basic communal problems.

A less insidious but equally problematic stereotyping of Jewish organizations also occurs in terms of function. Many believe start-ups should focus on innovation, private foundations on the research and development of new programs, and federations on sustaining whatever good projects the other two create.

The time has come to end this simplistic, unhealthy and unproductive thinking. We must move at once to an “open source” approach to Jewish communal life, one in which opportunity and competence dictate the flow of human and financial resources.

Not all start-ups are innovative and anti-establishment, not all federations lack inspiration and flexibility, and not all foundations operate solo. There are caring, concerned, competent and creative people in every corner of the Jewish communal world; we need to unleash and nurture their talent regardless of the kind of organization in which they work.

Let’s decide what we want to achieve as a community, how best to attain those goals and how to evaluate our efforts, then turn our attention to who and what are best suited for the task at hand — a process we expect could yield some surprising results that prove the current stereotypes very wrong.

And then we must act.

While the past few years have seen an explosion in the number of workshops, seminars and summits about the Jewish future, many of which have generated good recommendations, even the best ideas are of limited utility or benefit until they are put into practice.

The success of any initiative will depend in large part on the ability of the local federations, foundations, synagogues and other Jewish groups to move beyond their traditional roles and work together to engage and inspire the members of their communities in new and effective ways. The early signs are promising, and other communities are watching and learning from these efforts.

To lead to this new flexibility, we should engage in discussions about contemporary Jewish life and our dreams for the future, conversations that focus on function before form and empower organizational stakeholders to figure out what set of institutions could best meet those goals. These conversations should focus on the desired impact and the actions needed to achieve it, avoiding the political trap of pre-determining which type of institution is best for the task at hand.

At the end of the day, what makes the Jewish people special is the content of our message and the values on which it is grounded.

By focusing on the impact new types of computation could have on the personal computer, Intel’s Israeli engineers were able to overcome the inertia of large organizations and their proven business practices. By focusing on the impact we would like the Jewish people to achieve internally and externally, we also may be able to overcome the stereotypes that bind our organizational world and find new ways to function together, working toward common goals.

(Sanford R. Cardin is president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation and Schusterman Foundation-Israel. Ariel Beery and Aharon Horwitz are co-founders and directors of the Jerusalem-based PresenTense Group.)

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