Building a Thriving Innovation Ecosystem

In a recent JTA op-ed piece, Adene Sacks of the Jim Joseph Foundation shared a critical insight about the state of philanthropy and Jewish innovation. One the one hand, social entrepreneurs need support that “nurtures these early stage ventures into maturity and supports the growth of individual entrepreneurs into full leadership.” On the other hand, funders have become more strategic in their grantmaking, using grants primarily to achieve particular objectives as distinct from supporting worthy organizations. The result, she observes, is that “when JDub gets a grant for two concerts or Keshet is supported for teacher training but not for their work with GLBT students, then we, as funding entities, are not increasing impact.”

A few weeks ago I wrote in this space that “helping these Jewish entrepreneurs acquire the managerial tools they need, particularly as they move from the start-up phase to sustainability, is essential to sustain their contribution to Jewish life.” Sacks similarly sees a challenge in “the absence of a rational capital structure that nurtures these early stage ventures into maturity and supports the growth of individual entrepreneurs into full leadership.” She would like to see foundations offer “a more explicit roadmap to funding and, from the outset, define the foundation’s role in both achieving deliverables and designing a mutually beneficial exit strategy.”

That clarity and longer-term outlook are a welcome step. It would be tremendously helpful for thriving startups to know the benchmarks they will need to meet in order to attract second-stage funding perhaps three or four years after their launch. For those using the “investment” model adapted from the private sector there will likely be a mix of criteria: quality of the senior management, the pattern of growth in the organization and its impact, the long-term importance of the organization’s mission. That makes sense as far as it goes.

A market-based approach, however, is based on the survival of the fittest, punishing weakness rather than remedying it. If an innovator has a great concept but has challenges in marketing it, or if she was successful as a lone founder but has trouble delegating to a growing staff, it would be a loss to the community to give up on the venture simply because of those shortcomings. Intensive training after three years of operation could address deficiencies and help a viable project become a sustainable institution. Yet that sort of support is hard to come by. And, as PANIM’s Rabbi Sid Schwarz wrote in another recent JTA op-ed, “without the right kind of mentorship and support, young entrepreneurs may invest several years of hard work only to ‘crash and burn’ when they are no longer the freshest face on the block and the attention turns to the next new thing.”

If Jewish social entrepreneurship is to thrive in the long run, it needs a lot more than startup support. A true ecosystem, after all, involves much more than planting seeds. There has to be a place in the sun for saplings to grow into mighty trees, nourished by a wellspring of sustenance. All the advocacy for innovation will have been in vain unless funders come forward with major, systematic support for training, skill-building, and sustaining social entrepreneurs at the intermediate stage and in the long term.

Bob Goldfarb, a Harvard MBA, is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and vice-president of Zeek Media. He can be reached at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] org.