Eyes to The Future

by Aharon Horwitz and Ariel Beery

Scarcity. It’s a word that evokes dread in the minds of Jewish organizational professionals struggling to meet their budgets while they continue to provide for their constituents. The sustenance of thousands in need – whether elderly, young children, immigrants, the destitute or others – stands or falls on the strength of the infrastructure the Jewish people have built in Israel and around the world over the past century. Reacting to the gloomy predicament caused by the international recession, Jewish institutions and organizations worldwide have moved to reduce expenditures and focus on their core agenda: cutting pay, shedding staff, and even shortening work weeks. Some federations in the United States have even been forced to cut allocations to service organizations – such as the 20-percent cut in Milwaukee’s funding of the agencies it generally sponsors.

These cuts don’t always preserve the core. In Chicago, Jewish United Fund agencies reported in June that state cuts would mean that “600 frail older adults who depend on these vital services [will] remain in their own homes, cut off from services, 226 no longer receiving home-delivered meals, 516 no longer receiving personal care services, 160 no longer receiving transportation, 120 no longer receiving care management services,” among other challenges. What could be a more heart-rending call for action?

It’s natural, then, that community leaders would question whether our dwindling resources should continue to go to what has been called Jewish innovation programming – generally, small projects in early phases, such as alternative prayer groups, cultural productions or new methods of education, which attract only a handful of people and follow-on dollars.

Unfortunately, when seeking to answer the question, organizational leaders and philanthropists often focus on the $100 million that was invested in this sector in 2008 alone – a figure arrived at by a study conducted by the organization Jewish Jumpstart – rather than on the future returns on investment that this truly innovative programming will offer. Instead of thinking about only the immediate effect of the investment, we need to keep our eyes directed toward the future.

Businesses understand the importance of investing in innovation, as do armies, scientists, and not-for-profit organizations. New ideas that can be used to solve problems more effectively and efficiently rarely come from the center of an establishment – and such ideas are crucial when developing products and services to meet the needs of constituencies.

If we believe the Jewish people have a role to play in this world, we must also invest in new ideas, products and services, even during the slow times. The question, then, should not be whether to fund innovation – but rather, how to tie that innovation back into the core of our institutions, enabling our people to upgrade our operations for the future. It is rare that this line of questioning is pursued in the boardrooms where funding decisions are made – and yet introducing it will lead to a new perspective on establishment-innovator relationships, and will enhance the value of innovation to our global community.

The means of tying innovation into the core include “tech transfer” departments, similar to those in universities, working to ensure that projects being developed can effectively transition into established programs – or at least that the lessons learned by entrepreneurs are taught to institutional professionals.

Taking examples from fellows graduating from our PresenTense Institute, Jewish schools could learn from, and adapt lessons learned by Matt Bar and Ori Salzberg, in the realm of multimedia educational projects, and seen on Biblerapsnation.com; or from Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz and Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz’s blending of visual art and midrash, at KolHaot.com. Hillel International could pick up on Eli Winkelman’s take on education for social action through Challah for Hunger; and the Joint Distribution Committee could learn from Bradley Cohen’s work on All for the Kids.

By tapping into lessons and innovations developed in fast-moving, low-cost social ventures, our communal institutions could incorporate the implicit knowledge of the field into their structures at a fraction of the cost it would take for them to develop and test parallel structures.

Organizations could invest thought – as well as adapt ideas from the business world, like those seen in Cisco’s recent reorganization – in building an environment that attracts the most creative talents to organizations without squashing their energy. The Jewish people could make their organizations environments that the best innovators clamor to join or be acquired by – instead of environments with serious problems of professional continuity.

If we are to build community institutions that serve the future, we should stop speaking of an innovation ecosystem existing alongside an establishment, and rather understand the Jewish community as a holistic environment that needs both the new and the current to thrive. As the old Jewish hymn goes, “What is good and pleasant? When we dwell together in unity.”

Aharon Horwitz and Ariel Beery are co-directors of the PresenTense Group.