Embracing Change: San Diego’s Jewish Innovation Experience

by Lisa Haney

Three years after initiating seed funding to increase the diversity of access points to Jewish life and inspire greater engagement, caring and stronger relationships with Israel, 18 projects supported by the Jewish Federation of San Diego County’s Community Innovation Fund are now underway. What have we learned that can help other established organizations seeking to strengthen the Jewish innovation ecosystem, and what’s next?

The confluence of three factors galvanized the Jewish Federation of San Diego County to embark on this path of investing in innovation and embracing change:

  • Leadership and professional staff sought to balance 75 years of longstanding commitments with measured support for new approaches.
  • The recognition that a measured investment in change was prudent, timely and necessary to increase Federation’s effectiveness.
  • The realization that thousands of Jews in North America are creating and/or stepping into Jewish life through innovative approaches supported by at least $200 million annually*, and the emergence of a few small Jewish nonprofits in San Diego that are gaining higher profiles and in some cases, were knocking on Federation’s door for support.

While an estimated 2,500 San Diegans have benefited from this initiative, our greatest measure of success is more than the numbers served. In the past two years, we received more than 75 applications for seed funding of up to $10,000, representing a combined request of nearly $750,000, demonstrating strong community interest and a demand for this type of community stimulus. Several grantees have told us that they, their organizations and Jewish innovation overall have gained credibility through the support of the Jewish Federation. This has helped smaller nonprofits leverage funding essential for them to accomplish their objectives. Grantees report that through Federation’s funding, they successfully secured more than $300,000 from other foundations and donors.

Today, the organizations and programs funded address an array of Jewish needs and opportunities including engagement for those in their teens, twenties and thirties; Jewish caring, identity building, and ritual; conversational Hebrew, Israeli culture and Jewish holiday celebrations, and strengthening Israel advocacy skills for students on local campuses. These include ‘Chesed Home’, a new project of Hope Village San Diego, which plans to establish the first San Diego home for Jewish adults with severe mental illness; ‘G’Mach, Jewish Gift Closet’, which provides slightly used goods and emergency funding to hundreds of Jewish individuals in need; and ‘Friendship Circle Friends@Home’, in which volunteer teens visit children with disabilities in their homes to teach them about Jewish values, rituals and holidays.

Designed to support innovation in start-ups and smaller organizations as well as to provide R&D funding for established organizations, a mix of these are currently receiving innovation funding, with the majority being start-ups and smaller organizations. For the first time this year, Slingshot 12/13 recognizes a San Diego-based Jewish start-up which is supported by Federation’s Community Innovation Fund, ‘Tarbuton, an Israeli Cultural Center’.

This distinction will likely help the locally conceived and nurtured venture gain increased stature and support among national and local funders inclined to invest in Jewish innovation. ‘Tarbuton’ is the result of Jennie Starr’s unwavering commitment to keep modern, conversational Hebrew alive and flourishing in San Diego, as well as strengthening Israeli culture and Jewish community. Another grantee this year was the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, which with seed funding from Federation brought Bible Raps to San Diego. The original Bible Raps was featured in Slingshot 11/12. When we asked grantees what they count as the most beneficial elements of the Community Innovation Fund, they indicated that the pioneering capacity-building workshops are as important as the funding and increased credibility. Listening to the stated needs of ten grantees last year, Federation initiated complimentary capacity-building workshops in business budgeting, goal-setting and outcomes measurement (including logic model development), marketing, and fundraising; with one-on-one trainings in some areas. **

Other lessons learned and best practices include asking for help at the beginning from respected, capable leaders in innovation. Josh Avedon and Shawn Landres of Jumpstart worked with us to organize a leadership gathering and innovation brainstorming session with many people not in Federation’s database. They also trained a cadre of leaders and staff on best practices in innovation grant funding. Together, these activities helped gain momentum to support innovation at Federation and in the San Diego Jewish community, based on best practices. Moishe House was one of our first two innovation grantees. David Cygielman, CEO and a founder of this phenomenon in worldwide Jewish engagement, has been an invaluable, trusted resource in supporting innovation in San Diego. “We consider our partnership with Federation to be critical to bringing Moishe House to San Diego, especially recognizing that they were one of the first Federations to modify their funding model and support smaller, forward-thinking organizations along with established agencies,” said Cygielman.

Clearly, while much has been accomplished, several elements stand to be refined and/or improved. We can and should do a better job of educating our leadership, volunteers and professional staff about the values of investing in Jewish community innovation, the many quantitative and qualitative wins, and increase the “community buzz” to create a multiplier effect. By stepping up our own outcomes measurement of the overall program, which is underway, we can better demonstrate combined value of the Community Innovation Initiative. Even with vocal support among our professional fundraisers and volunteer campaign leaders who say that this is one of the most exciting elements of what we are offering today, we are providing less than 5 percent of our external grant-funding to innovation.

The scope of our funding may need to be narrowed for greater impact and to reflect the organization’s changing focal points, and if we fund new programs, can we expect start-ups to engage in greater collaboration? Finally, as we look to increase sustainability as well as outcomes, there appear to be promising opportunities to link some start-ups with established organizations. One of the key questions, however, is if the programs will maintain the same appeal, especially among young people, as they have had previously once this happens.

So much is changing in the Jewish world. Including the “established” organizations. As Will Schneider, Slingshot Executive Director said, “Relevancy is not burning down the house; it’s saving the house and the community by building new structures that enrich the entire landscape.”

Lisa Haney, M.A., is Director, Community Planning & Innovation Center at the Jewish Federation of San Diego County. Previously, Haney served as Manager, Center for Healthier Communities at Rady Children’s Hospital & Health Center, and as a News Reporter at The San Diego Union.

*Jewish Innovation Economy, An Emerging Market for Knowledge and Social Capital, Jumpstart, the Natan Fund, Samuel Bronfman Foundation, 2011

**To learn about the best capacity-building solutions, delivery methods and models to help nonprofits, see The Ripple Effect: Taking Nonprofit Capacity Building to the Next Level, Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation and Duke Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, 2011