Getting From Startup To Grownup


About a decade ago, the American Jewish community saw the birth of its own “startup sector:” grassroots organizations on shoestring budgets offering new ways to connect with Judaism, from concerts to bike rides to camping. Today, many of these groups are looking for the significant, long-term funding that would enable them to transcend the scrappy stage and reach exponentially more people, says Nina Bruder, executive director of Bikkurim, an incubator that advised and funded several such organizations when they were in their infancy.

Outside the Jewish world, philanthropy has evolved to provide financial backing and advice to those nonprofits that have the potential to be more than startups, the report says. But most Jewish groups in the same situation lack this support, because of their newness and because many funders consider them less sexy than a brand-new group, and less safe than a longstanding one. To focus communal attention on these groups’ needs, Bikkurim issued a report, “From First Fruits to Abundant Harvest: Maximizing the Potential of Innovative Jewish Start-Ups,” last week at “Slingshot Day,” a gathering of innovative Jewish nonprofits and their funders. Bruder spoke with The Jewish Week about the report’s conclusions, implications and possible results.

Q: Why does this funding gap exist?

A: It’s just a natural next step. We didn’t have this many startups until 10 years ago. It took some time for the community to catch on and recognize that as valuable. I don’t blame anybody for there being a funding gap …

Why issue a report, and why now?

We recognized that there was a problem; we did the research to understand the problem; we came up with suggestions and then we said, ‘OK, guys, let’s get to work, let’s do it …’ At Slingshot Day, we rolled out the study to about 60 people, representing many of the key funders and the support organizations in the Jewish innovation sector. The purpose was to issue a call to action for collaboration in the Jewish community from those interested in Jewish startups, to educate everybody and commit them to advancing the most promising post-startups.

Where will the money come from to grow these groups?

There’s no silver bullet to this one. The whole community is in the same boat, whether you’re in the startup circle or not. The whole community is challenged financially … I’m hopeful for the attractiveness of the startups and post-startups, because they’re very grassroots-based and responsive to constituent interests. [Through them] people are discovering ways of doing Jewish that they never existed before. I’m hoping that will resonate with new donors.

What kind of funding do these groups need?

One of the things we really learned is the importance of annual gifts from the very beginning. You need donors that will give every year, and not just on a time-limited basis. You can’t last forever on a base of time-limited grants. Maybe some funders will experiment, concentrate their resources more, give larger and longer.

What were the results of the meeting around the report?

There’s a commitment to working together. It was the formalization of a network to advance this work … No organization on its own can solve any of these problems … So there was talk about building bridges between the startup world and the more established Jewish community, and about funders working more closely with the support organizations. Ten years ago, there was more of an adversarial stance between the startups and the more established organizations.

What are the next steps?

The tachlis work is about to begin. We talked about what the funding landscape looks like: where are the dollars, from what sources, to what participants. There were people who wanted to step in to take three different roles. One, expanding the funding pool. Two, building capacity support services and three, how to keep the network strong … It was a group of people who had never come together before with a dedicated common goal.

Is there an understanding that not all of these groups can make it to the next stage?

Definitely, yes, there was that awareness. Some don’t need to grow or want to grow. Some don’t have a message that resonates with funders. Some aren’t doing a good job at delivering whatever they want to deliver. There’s a lot of reasons why an organization won’t get beyond the startup stage. But there are some that have reached the post-startup stage and could expand if resourced properly, like Sharsheret (a cancer support network), Keshet (advocacy for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews) and Mechon Hadar (a yeshiva).