Innovation Isn’t Dead, It’s Working

by Lisa Lepson and Will Schneider

Toward the end of 2012 the central organization in the Jewish environmental movement, Hazon, merged with the more than 100-year old Jewish project, Isabella Freedman. The linking of an organization that has been identified in the Slingshot guide as a “Standard Bearer of Jewish innovation” with a century old project set off a round of casual conversations predicting the possible end of the era of innovation and the beginning of the next phase – with communal leaders focusing on potential “integration” and “mash-up” of the innovation and established organizations. As the innovations of the past decade find new models to move forward, our collective attention has begun to shift with them. Funders, too, are concerned with funding models for “2nd stage” organizations. Is this to the detriment of new ideas? These concerns and issues that have arisen only prove the success of the investments in innovation to this point.

For the record, Slingshot and Joshua Venture Group applaud the Hazon/Isabella Freedman merger. Furthermore, Slingshot and JVG encourage organizations to always be on the lookout for ways to increase efficiency and impact. The theory is that from a market perspective, integration will eliminate redundancy, foster greater sustainability, and marshal resources. As the innovation community matures, our structure must mature as well.

Reading these articles on eJewishPhilanthropy.com we grew concerned that the community focus would shift completely away from support of early-stage entrepreneurial initiatives.

The philanthropic community took risks by investing in Hazon a decade ago, and those investments are paying off today. That is to say, innovation works: the promise of a start-up Jewish environmental organization is now re-shaping the Jewish future. While we need to support success stories like Hazon, we must also ensure the best new ideas are brought to market. We cannot shift our community focus to integration or 2nd stage support, but rather 2nd stage support must be added to our community focus. Are there still worthwhile new ideas? Of course.

Why should we, as a community, continue to be vigilant about encouraging innovation?

Innovation is relevancy – as long as there are Jews not being served by existing organizations, there is a need for fresh ideas, perspectives, and programs. Entrepreneurial ventures serve those who are not yet being served by the mainstream, and though we as a community have become more inclusive and are reaching more people, we still have many more obstacles to overcome.

Some ideas were meant to die, to live briefly, and to be incorporated in other ways. This is not failure; this is the process of entrepreneurship. As a community, we have a greater interest in the health of individual organizations, sometimes at the expense of (and certainly regardless of) the health of the system.

Judaism will continue to change and adapt, as it has throughout time – and when doing so, new ideas will surface, entrepreneurs will arrive, and with our community’s support, they will flourish.

Conclusion

If investments made in the early 2000’s are paying off today, what investments are we making today that will pay off in 2023? Can we have both a long-lens focus on 2023, and support innovation Standard Bearers through growth and transitions? We will need to, because as long as there are underserved needs in Jewish life, new projects and organizations will emerge to meet them. Our imperative is to increase the odds of success for the best of these projects, and if we support them properly we will enjoy a wave of mergers in 2023.

Lisa Lepson is the Executive Director of Joshua Venture Group. Will Schneider is the Executive Director of Slingshot.

cross-posted at Jewish Communal Fund (NY) Blog

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Comments

  1. says

    I’m not sure that I would agree that “entrepreneurial ventures serve those who are not yet being served by the mainstream.” In fact, I think such a description serves to marginalize innovation. True innovation is disruptive, not cumulative. The iPhone didn’t serve those not yet being served by the mainstream. It disrupted the mainstream entirely. Blackberry, Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola got blown up, and have still not recovered from Apple’s innovation, even as others like Google, HTC, and Samsung embraced the innovation and rose to prominence in the industry.

    Innovation is fundamental. It forces us to revise our previous assumptions and to enter into deeper conversations and relationships with our customers, clients, members, vendors, etc. Innovation also comes in many flavors, from process and product innovation to position and paradigm innovation (to use one of many models for describing innovation).

    I certainly agree that we need innovation. The question is whether we are structurally set up to foster it and capitalize on it. I believe that we are not. To change that reality, we need to focus on the basics: defining the challenges we wish to address, articulating theories of change, and identifying metrics. More than anything else, we need to embrace the process of innovation: testing, measuring learning, and repeating, in all of our organizations.

  2. says

    Today’s Jewish organizational life contains the irony that Lisa and Will pointed out above – even though Jewish observance has always had to shift in response to world trends, there’s always resistance to any course change, and as a result we’re not as well-positioned for large-scale acceptance of innovative efforts by startups and entrepreneurs as we could be. There’s still a significant fear of the impact (both cultural and financial) of change, as if a shift in or incorporation of a new approach or methodology necessarily means the jettisoning of a hallowed mission. (Not that the hallowed mission couldn’t sometimes benefit from an occasional review, but…)

    There are many ways in which the community can support both first- and second-stage projects and initiatives – from inviting one-time presentations on initiatives to setting up “creatives-in-residence” situations for artists or entrepreneurs, investing in the professional development, the Jewish content fluency and networking potential of the individuals who fuel them. We should be encouraged that such partnerships are emerging, from the Hazon/Isabella Freedman merger to communal support of Moishe Houses and PresenTense fellowships, and that more organizations are looking to either bring in innovative programs or let them incubate within their walls, a process which can have a rejuvenating effect on the organization itself as these projects provide a new lens on engagement. (A few years ago, I called this “withinnovation,” other people refer to it as “intrapreneurship.”)

    And even though I work with innovative organizations, I prefer to use the term “inventive” or “creative” or even “disruptive” (although that last one I use sparingly because people outside of the “innovation circle” may think it’s too radical) as a descriptor, because I think creativity and invention are more sustainable than an “innovation,” per se. I wrote about it here, in case anyone’s interested: http://estherkustanowitz.typepad.com/myurbankvetch2005/2012/10/approaching-innovation-verbicidal-tendencies-.html

    Looking forward to more great conversations as we continue to make space for Jewish creativity and inventiveness in today’s richly diverse and meaningful Jewish landscape.

  3. says

    As I’ve also read recent eJPhil articles, I understand the basis for the author’s concern. However, I don’t see interest and funding in Jewish social innovation drying up any time soon.

    As I recently wrote when responding to Eli Malinsky’s claim that “Social Entrepreneurship Will Dissolve as a Distinct Discipline”: the Jewish social entrepreneurship sector has only seem to have gotten stronger in the last couple of years. The most recent examples here in Israel include a Schusterman $250k grant to Ashoka Israel and the Israeli Government’s RFI to create an Social Entrepreneurship Fund.

    In general, I believe that innovation in the Jewish nonprofit sector would still by traveling at a snail’s pace if the traditional institutions wouldn’t have gotten the external push from organizations like Slingshot and Joshua Ventures. Proof of acceptance of these “outsiders” can be seen in many places, the Federation system’s partnership with PresenTense to name one.

    With that being said, with all the focus on social startups, funders and professionals alike could use a little reminding that there is life after “birth” and that second-stage funding is a crucial concept.

    Best wishes for continued success,

    Shuey
    @nonprofitbanker

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