By Stefanie Rhodes
How do you engage young people in Jewish life? Last week The American Jewish Population Project shared that the 1.4 million Jewish millennials in the United States are also the most diverse generation. When considered with the data from Slingshot’s first-ever formal evaluation, I remain convinced that engagement is in large part about empowering the Next Generation to create the communities and the opportunities that inspire them. This is true for innovators of Jewish life and Next Gen funders alike. Slingshot’s evaluation sheds new light on the innovation ecosystem and our role in it. I am delighted to share the findings. But first some background on Slingshot.
Through our three primary initiatives – the Guide, the Fund, and the Day, Slingshot works to help funders find, support and connect to the most innovative projects in Jewish life. Our vision is to engage the next generation of Jewish philanthropists, ensuring the funding and prioritization of innovative Jewish projects, thus helping to carry vibrant Jewish life into the future.
Slingshot was created by and for Next Gen funders in response to a need. 12 years ago, a group of young inheritors of wealth emerged from Grand Street, a next gen network run by 21/64. They came to the gathering with a tradition of philanthropy and a responsibility for carrying out that legacy. They had a clear sense for the change they wanted to make in the world, but needed a tool to help them navigate the Jewish landscape. They set out to create a resource to find the most cutting edge, innovative programs. With support from the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and the leadership of Sharna Goldseker, Slingshot was born.
The Slingshot Fund has proven an important network and educational space for Next Gen funders, as well. Since Slingshot’s founders launched it in 2007, the Fund has granted over $3m and engaged more than 100 Next Gen funders in one of the Jewish community’s first giving circles. Through Slingshot Day, we also remain the only national gathering that connects Jewish innovators, Next Gen funders and funders of innovation. Slingshot has been at the forefront of Jewish innovation since its inception and has highlighted more than 250 organizations through 11 national guides and 7 supplements.
Just over a year ago Slingshot became a 501c3. Amid a flourishing innovation landscape we wanted to understand our role in the innovation ecosystem. Thanks to a grant from the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation we were able to hire Informing Change to help us find out. What been our impact to date? How have we contributed to the prioritization of innovation? What does that mean as we move forward?
Through the evaluation process, we realized that it can be nearly impossible to quantify how any one organization or funder creates change in this field, particularly when innovation is happening so rapidly and changing the way we engage with the world around us. We are also reminded that shortly before Slingshot was created, Joshua Venture and Bikkurim launched. They were created to help incubate new, innovative organizations by giving them the technical support, training, network and funding they needed to develop. Clearly we were not alone in understanding the value of supporting innovation.
This ground shift is not exclusive to the Jewish community. The iPod, Facebook and YouTube all also emerged at around the same time Slingshot was founded. We have worked collectively to move the needle during revolutionary times. This shift is impacting the evolution of the Jewish innovation space. Increasingly, innovation is a priority for many funders – especially Next Gen funders.
I am pleased to share the findings of our report, taking this opportunity to celebrate how far we have come as a field and to highlight Slingshot’s role in that evolution:
1. Slingshot’s contribution to stimulating funding for and prioritization of Jewish innovative projects is most clear to Next Gen funders. This finding supports the theory that if you empower the next generation to create the kind of Jewish community they want, they will be more engaged in that community. To be sure, some will say that this is obvious. Yet many in our community continue wrestle with how to bring young people to the tables that are already set.
Furthermore, Slingshot’s board is populated entirely by Next Gens, which explains why for this demographic we continue to play a critical role. As a result of their involvement in Slingshot, Next Gen funders have grown in their philanthropic knowledge, awareness and skills. They value Slingshot for its role as a convener and appreciate connecting with other Next Gen funders, institutional funders, and Jewish innovative projects through the networking opportunities that Slingshot facilitates.
2. It is important to note that our study looked at the innovation ecosystem as a whole and discovered a wide range of perspectives on Slingshot’s role. Nearly everyone who participated in this study credit us with raising visibility of the organizations and cultivating interest in their work. However, with so much energy focused on Jewish innovation not everyone credited Slingshot with playing an integral part of the shift towards the communal prioritization of innovation. Other contributing factors to that shift include: an increased number of young people getting involved with philanthropy, funders willing to take more risk to attract young people and organizations gaining credibility in this space through years of success. In fact, funders of innovation say the Guide helps to validate funding decisions as an important way that they hear about innovative work in the Jewish community.
3. For the innovators, it is clear that inclusion in the Guide serves as a “seal of approval,” lending legitimacy and endorsement to grant proposals and communications. It has been harder to trace whether funding increases as a result. However, over half our respondents credited Slingshot with raising visibility and interest in creating innovative programming. That said, nearly half of all funders indicate that they have increased their funding of innovative Jewish projects.
This data has provided Slingshot with an opportunity to look inward. As we enter our 12th year we, too, must push ourselves to remain relevant and to hold ourselves to the same standards we set for other innovative organizations in the field. For the first time in our history our board welcomed a foundation professional and a representative from an innovative organization, understanding that the wisdom and experience of others will be important for our own evolution.
As we move into the future, Slingshot will continue working with all members of the innovation ecosystem with a focus on our unique role with Next Gen funders. We will expand our work into local communities by highlighting innovation happening beyond the national level. Using the tools we’ve created, Slingshot will thereby increase the number of Next Gen funders engaged in creating and supporting Jewish life. We will run more Slingshot Funds while continuing to build on existing partnerships and bringing more funders and amazing Jewish innovators to the table.
There is much cause for concern in our world, but when I see the results of this study I cannot help but feel optimistic about the future of Jewish life. Those with the vision to both create and fund innovation in the Jewish community have filled it with so many wonderful ways to find meaning. They have also taught us that the best way to pave the way towards a vibrant and strong Jewish future is to empower its future leaders to create the kind of world they want to live in.
Stefanie Rhodes is Executive Director of Slingshot.