by Joshua Avedon, Shawn Landres, Saba Soomekh, and Andrés Spokoiny
Los Angeles is already a dynamic center for Jewish innovation, home to dozens of Jewish nonprofit startups, as well as vibrant established organizations working to re-invent Jewish life. However, there have been few opportunities to examine the changing environment as a whole and explore how collaboration and cooperation between funders and other resource providers could achieve positive sustainable change in the Jewish community.
This past January, Jumpstart, in partnership with the Jewish Funders Network and with generous support from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, organized and convened Innovation to Transformation: Changing Jewish LA, Changing LA Jewishly, a funders summit of nearly eighty select leaders in Los Angeles philanthropy who are committed to making Los Angeles a global center for Jewish creativity and community in the 21st century, through innovation and long-term collaboration. Invitations to the event – sent only to individuals who directly influenced the allocation of resources to charitable endeavors – were curated by a host committee with deep roots in the community and social networks spanning the breadth of Southern California. There was a special focus on recruiting emerging philanthropists, individuals of means who were still forming their personal approach to funding charitable projects; in the end, 29% were under 40, 55% were 40-60, and 16% were over 60. The participant group was diverse, representing the various populations and interests present in Jewish LA. The interplay of differing perspectives, seasoned with input from local philanthropic peers with experience and expertise, catalyzed conversations that deepened understanding and have led to documented interest in collaborative action. According to the summit’s evaluator, Dr. Thomas Backer, President of the Human Interaction Research Institute, “more than 90% of all participants:
- made connections with like-minded philanthropists.
- gained new information and perspectives on issues of importance to them.
- felt greater commitment to building cultures of innovation through their philanthropic work.
- were interested in collaborating with other participants on topics discussed at this event.”
This past week, Jumpstart made widely available its report from the summit, by Dr. Saba Soomekh. Entitled LA 2013: The Jewish Future – only sooner, it is available here. Following are excerpts from the second part of Andrés Spokoiny’s keynote remarks, “Engineered Serendipity: Creating Space for Innovation and Risk-Taking.” Excerpts from the first part of his remarks were published here. His full essay appears in LA 2013.
It is hard to be innovative in a highly bureaucratic environment. Yet, we sometimes force funders to become structured too soon. And by “structure” we mean an old-style system of boards and committees. Yes, governance is critical and the lack thereof is a recipe for disaster, but the governance mechanisms we choose need to be conducive to innovation.
We are in love with start-ups; they really are “à la mode” these days. However, sometimes our love of small, innovative organizations prevents them from growing into scale. We fund start-ups, but we don’t give them the means to build capacity and grow to scale. It is true that not every start-up needs to grow. Actually, not every start-up needs to survive. That’s the nature of innovation. But those that could grow to scale should be allowed to do so. Our funding cycles are not always conducive to that. We give short-term grants that don’t allow start-ups to build capacity. We fund the innovators, but then we starve them of funds precisely when they are ready to take their innovation to scale. It’s important to devise funding cycles that are in line with the nature of the activity. Amazon.com took six years until it distributed dividends. Without a longer funder relationship, scaling is impossible. Funders have a responsibility to allow for the creation of an open environment where nonprofits feel free to create and innovate without having to worry about not being funded tomorrow.
On confusion between innovation and engagement:
Sometimes we fund innovation as a way to provide an avenue to Jewish engagement for the innovator himself. That’s not necessarily bad in and of itself, but one has to be careful. Engagement has other rules and other goals; it is different from innovation. One has to be extremely clear – and careful – about what we are actually funding. If, for the sake of engagement, we fund programs that produce unnecessary or unscalable innovation, we at least should be clear about it.
On ideas and ideologies:
Ideologically, we live in 1880, as almost all of the leading movements that organize Jewish life (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Zionist) were created then. There has been virtually no ideological innovation since Mordechai Kaplan. True, there’s a paucity of ideas in the world in general, but the lack of ideological innovation – by that we mean the development of new concepts of G-d, society, community, Judaism, identity, etc. – makes the quest for meaning very hard, especially for young people. In the 21st century, it’s hard for them to find meaning in ideologies that were created to respond to historical realities of nearly 200 years ago. In this realm as well, we seem not to give ourselves permission to experiment, tinker and play. We need this meta-innovation probably more than the innovation in programs and services.
Joshua Avedon and Shawn Landres are the co-founders of Jumpstart. Saba Soomekh, a researcher and lecturer, is the author of From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women between Religion and Culture (SUNY Press, 2012). Andrés Spokoiny is President and CEO of JFN.