Generating Innovation within Jewish Education Demands a Tolerance for Risk

by David Waksberg

The children of Israel are poised to enter the Promised Land. After generations of slavery in Egypt and then a sojourn through desert wilderness, one would think the bar wouldn’t be all that high for Canaan to look good. And indeed, twelve scouts return from a 40 day “feasibility study” and report a land flowing with milk and honey.

Yet the scouts also report risks – powerful giants already inhabiting the land. Most of the scouts and their “clients” are risk-averse. They consider returning to Egypt rather than risk the unknown. Only Caleb and Joshua are bullish – their optimism is rewarded with the threat of a stoning.

The story in Shelach Lecha resonates for anyone in the business of innovation. Any new venture has rewards and risks. When the rewards are obvious and the risks trivial – no great courage or faith are required. The greater the potential risk, the more difficult the decision to proceed. It is easier to say no, easier to stick with the status quo.

For our communities to succeed and thrive, we need more Joshuas and Calebs. How can we cultivate that kind of courage among Jewish leaders?

Fruitful innovation involves the will and capacity to experiment and take risks. Risk-taking involves failure. Investing in innovation involves investing in risk, and with it, tolerance for failure. Working to improve Jewish education is no exception. If we are to realize gains in the field – engaging more students in meaningful learning and building the next generation of Jewish leaders – we need to invest in risk, understanding we will occasionally fail. Indeed, with strong leadership, vision, knowledge management, and communication, we can often learn as much from failure as from success.

Despite growing interest in “venture philanthropy,” much Jewish philanthropy discourages risk-taking and contributes to risk-averse behavior among Jewish leaders. If we want to encourage innovation in Jewish education, there are some strategies philanthropists and central agencies can follow.

How Can We Invest in Experimentation?

  • Fund groups as well as projects. We have witnessed a growing trend in which philanthropic dollars flow more to projects than to institutions. This is understandable – it is the program’s outcomes, not the institution executing it, that compel the funding. The flaw in this strategy is that it inhibits agility, creativity, and the flexibility to make dynamic decisions – all important contributors to successful innovators. For example, as a CEO of a multi-million dollar agency, almost all my funding is tied to specific projects (often with three-year funding cycles). If an idea comes up, if a need emerges – our ability to respond to that need, to seize that idea or opportunity, is limited. Whether it is a startup or an established institution, if there is confidence in the people, it behooves us to invest in their ability to make good decisions.
  • Support infrastructure. Support systems, administration and marketing rarely attract philanthropic dollars and are often underfunded. While understandable, if taken in the extreme, it contributes to scenarios in which institutions are incapable of succeeding because the scaffolding required to support an innovative endeavor has been starved and the project itself is ill-equipped to succeed on its own. Supervision/coaching/mentoring, outcome-oriented planning and evaluation, and marketing/communications are sound practices and innovation-friendly support beams that help organizations manage and mitigate risk.
  • Embrace failure. Of course we want to make smart bets, but don’t punish risk-takers if every bet doesn’t pan out. An innovation-friendly funding environment encourages reasonable risks (that occasionally fail) and practices that enable practitioners and funders to learn from those failures.
  • Give innovation time to succeed. In the non-profit world, sustainability is a key indicator of success. However, in contrast with the private sector, it is not the only or even the most salient indicator of success. While the seeding approach does indeed cultivate innovation, this model should be examined carefully as many innovations may require more than three years before they are sustainable without institutional philanthropic support. And some great ideas will always require community support – that in itself does not make them unsustainable. This is especially important in education, where it may take several years before we truly understand innovation’s payoff.

In San Francisco, we embarked on several new innovative initiatives in Jewish education; fortunately, we were blessed with visionary “venture” funders. Promoting innovation in part-time Jewish education, the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education (PELIE) has partnered with us and other communities – seeding local efforts with matching funding and expertise. PELIE is no pushover – they push us to optimize success, but they encourage risks and tolerate “good” mistakes, so long as they are in the service of innovation and we learn from them.

Other funders, including the Jim Joseph Foundation, the SF-based Jewish Community Federation, the Koret Foundation and the Goldman Fund have similarly embraced a venture approach, enabling educators to “re-imagine” approaches to Israel education and inclusion.

Philanthropists and central agencies can be partners who nurture innovation in Jewish education. Educators must navigate the risks of innovation. Central agencies (BJEs) can provide expertise and philanthropists can provide resources. Both can help manage risk.

If we want to cultivate the spirit of Joshua and Caleb in Jewish education, we need to nurture and reward that intrepid spirit that lies at the heart of innovation.

David Waksberg is the executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco.