For Every Idea, a Nonprofit?

by Caryn Aviv

As a sociologist, I’ve always been interested in what kind of frames and metaphors people use to talk about and galvanize collective social action. Innovation is a buzzword in the Jewish world, much the way the concept of ‘continuity’ exploded onto the Jewish communal agenda in the early 1990s.

In a nutshell, here’s what I think innovation is not:

  • A sector of the Jewish world
  • An ecosystem
  • A particular age demographic or regional characteristic

To me, innovation, as I observe it in global Jewish communities, is:

  • an approach to engaging with ideas and challenges in a rapidly changing and interconnected world;
  • A framework of thinking critically, analytically, and empirically about what works, what doesn’t, and why;
  • A willingness and ability to see the world through fresh eyes and not take things for granted simply because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’

But there’s a tension between innovation and tradition. In fact, maybe it’s just a fictional binary. Some ideas in Jewish history and tradition that were once innovative seem relatively tired and/or calcified –-see Shawn Landres’ comments about the current crisis facing the Federation system of giving and allocation. But some ancient ideas, practices, or communal forms actually continue to have tremendous value and could benefit the world with a bit of tweaking to address contemporary needs and sensibilities.

I’ve been thinking about a couple of questions for the past few months that dovetail the conversation in this month’s Sh’ma. I would love to hear people’s responses:

  • How do Jewish investors, who want to promote innovation, gauge a return on their investment when so much of what Jewish non-profits, whether innovative or not – traffic in are intangible variables such as meaning, connection, and community? And what kind of metrics or measurable outcomes can Jewish organizations work with to help keep the focus on profitability and productivity, and improvement through innovation, rather than simply just institutional preservation, for preservation’s sake?
  • Would the Jewish world be better served by encouraging some social entrepreneurs to incubate and incorporate as for-profit companies, rather than as non-profits?

I ask this because I’m worried about market saturation in some sectors of Jewish non-profit life. We’ve seen a tremendous proliferation of organizations and programs in the Jewish world. But let’s face it – not all of them are viable, not all have clearly articulated missions, markets, products, or services. Not every idea that seems new or innovative or hot is necessarily a great idea that requires launching a new start-up. Where can people with interesting ideas partner with existing organizations to offer new kinds of programming, rather than go through all the mishegas involved in creating yet another Jewish organization? Where can there be consolidation in a given field (see the burgeoning Jewish food movement) so that young, scrappy start-ups aren’t competing for the same few funding dollars?

If some Jewish organizations were for-profit and failed to make a profit, would that provide valuable information about people want and/or need? Would the Jewish world become more competitive, leaner with less duplication, and possibly more interesting or relevant?

Caryn Aviv is the Posen Senior Instructor in Secular Jewish Society & Civilization at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She publishes widely for scholarly and popular audiences in the areas of contemporary Jewish culture, gender and sexuality in Judaism, and Israel Studies. In her voluminous spare time, she melds her love of Jewish text with her love of theater, by directing Storahtelling Colorado.

Reprinted with permission from the October 2011 issue of the journal Sh’ma, as part of a larger conversation about philanthropy and tzedakah.