Five Answers to Seth Cohen’s “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”

by Rabbi Yonatan Gordis:

In his eloquent reflection on five key questions about innovation in the Jewish communal world, Seth Cohen offers us guidance for both discussion and action in the field. The following thoughts may move both areas forward.

1. What? First, we need to ask the tricky question of whether we are investing in true innovation that can have a sustainable impact on Jewish life, or are we investing in very niche areas of Jewish interest that are fashionable but not forward-thinking? Is there a difference? How we answer these questions may very well determine how well we can develop even greater amounts of investment in Jewish innovation in the coming years.

It is important to remember that not all innovation is forward-thinking or need be. Not all innovators are planners. Oftentimes, they are reactors to current conditions – sometimes cultural, sometimes economic. To avoid the binary debate, we would be better off holding a diversified portfolio of innovative approaches in our community. “Fashionable” often knows the pulse of a generation more than “forward thinking” and there is more than enough room at the table for both. Ultimately, the question of sustainability has as much to do with the investors as it does with the vision of the innovators themselves. What is a wise portfolio? Perhaps one that can hold many species, like Noah’s famous sea-worthy vessel.

2. Who? The Jumpstart paper focuses on the ratio that many innovative efforts are independent entities (80%) as opposed to independently operating subsidiaries of larger organizations (20%). But the question remains, by motivating innovation outside of established organizations, are we dooming those established organizations to an innovation deficit? Rather than creating an accretive aspect of Jewish communal life, are we inadvertently creating an abscess that may actually damage it? How can we balance the locus of innovation so that we get maximum benefit with minimum harm?

”We” are not dooming established organizations to a deficit. They are dooming themselves. However, any of us who does make an annual gift to a local federation might ask the following question. Why doesn’t my local federation allocate funding specifically to innovation in the community? Anyone who takes even a cursory look at innovation in the non-profit sector knows that it generally starts on the local level. If federations are really going to be locally responsible (as in – able to respond) and locally relevant, then they would know that investing in local innovation is as much an investment in the Jewish future as is allocating funds to Jewish education, Israel or a myriad of other classic federations areas of interest. Shouldn’t federations be boasting to each other (and then sharing) the best innovations they incubated locally?

3. Where? Are our existing community-based funding organizations (as opposed to national foundations) sufficiently focused on funding regional and micro-regional Jewish innovation? The Jumpstart survey reinforces the belief that Jewish innovation (on a percentage basis of surveyed organizations) is greatest in New York and California (57% of surveyed organizations are located in those two states). Certainly those states have some of the largest population centers, but how do we create a broader national environment of Jewish innovation in places like St. Louis? Charlotte? Houston?

In that innovation generally starts on the local level, it should be funded on the local level and not only on the national. Local happens everywhere – not just in New York and Los Angeles. The problem is that few communities expose key funders to their local innovators. Those local funders would find comfort and inspiration in what they see in their community’s home-baked projects. These encounters would allow funders – young and old – to proudly step up to a leadership position by funding local innovation, adding new prestige to Jewish philanthropy which has not had a great year.

4. Why? If so few organizations in the innovation ecosystem are focused on human services, how will we balance the legacy needs of existing infrastructure that primarily focus on servicing those needs; especially when those needs will be rapidly escalating as the baby boom generation shifts into an age where they may more frequently need those services?

Incentivization. While many innovators follow only their hearts and values, others are more serial innovators – applying cutting edge thinking to multiple sectors and approaches. Oftentimes, the possibility of fiscal support can draw an innovator to apply his/her brilliance to a particular challenge – and such opportunities might be just what will draw social innovators to focus on the growing social service needs in the Jewish community. Of course, we might just need to wait until so many young folks have elderly boomer parents that they choose to address their own most pressing needs – this time in the field of social service and not just new media.

5. How? Assuming we believe that greater investment in Jewish innovation is essential to continuing the maintenance of a strong Jewish community, how do we inspire entrepreneurs to innovate in areas of greatest need? Is that a fair question? And if we succeed in motivating a shift of substantial regional and micro-regional investment in innovation (i.e. Federations invest more in innovative initiatives and start-ups as opposed to legacy areas of funding) what are the metrics by which we measure the impact of innovation against the cost? Is it the number of entities? Web-clicks? Participants? Or are there more general longitudinal metrics we need to identify and begin to measure?

We need to understand our relative role. We are not here to inspire entrepreneurs. They’re already inspired. Hopefully they will even inspire us. But in the meantime, we are here to challenge them, support them, back them, incentivize them, network them, train them and…. support them (again).

We must also tread very carefully about how we measure costs and impacts – for innovation often only shows its fruits longitudinally. The metrics must relate to the risk taken by trying to be “out of the box,” which changes how we monetize impact. Relative risk in times of even more relative uncertainty wreaks havoc on classic calculations regarding return on investment, and we would be wise to avoid applying the wrong measurement tools. The Mishna describes the verse, “Those who plant in tears will reap in joy” being about the oxen drawing the plough through the hard dry soil in one direction and eating the new fresh grass that has grown there on their way back down the row. In the field of innovation, we never know how long the row is before we can turn around and head home, benefiting from the sustenance created by hard work and investment. In that sense, investing in innovation may actually be rooted in faith as much as in science, and that itself makes Jewish community into a fascinating dance.

Rabbi Yonatan Gordis is the Executive Director of the Center for Leadership Initiatives (CLI), an operating foundation dedicated to supporting current and emerging leaders in the global Jewish communal world. For more on CLI’s programs, visit Leading Up and ROI Community.