New challenges

How UpStart Is centering social entrepreneurship in our new strategic plan

In Short

Organizational growth done right can include minimizing or even eliminating certain areas of focus to instead put more resources into what the organization does best and yields the most impact. This was something that we, our board, and other stakeholders had to digest and ultimately we’ve come to celebrate.

As a social entrepreneur support organization, how will we better define and measure our success and our direct and indirect impact? How can we inspire and incubate more social enterprises and/or nonprofits with more promising and robust earned revenue streams? How will we build diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) into our strategy, metrics, culture and operations as we grow?

These were just some of the questions we asked ourselves as we launched a new strategic planning process nearly a year ago. As our previous strategic plan came to a close, UpStart’s future was becoming clearer than ever before. At its heart, UpStart is a learning organization, and we always find it clarifying to reflect on the past to see how far we’ve come and how far we’re poised to go.

Looking back to look forward

More than five years ago, four organizations merged to create a one-stop shop to support the needs of the organizations and individuals driving Jewish social innovation and engagement. Under the UpStart umbrella, our vision has been to deliver a comprehensive, streamlined suite of high-quality services to those making change within North American Jewish communities and all those pursuing Jewish innovation. 

At the center of UpStart’s model was an implicit mandate for growth. Our strategies were aimed at helping to solve all the problems — from helping communal leaders navigate resistance to change to getting early-stage ventures off the ground — not just the problems within our historic areas of expertise. 

But as the merger itself moved further in the rear-view mirror — and the field of “Jewish entrepreneurship” continued to evolve — we recognized a need to evolve as well. UpStart needed to align and clarify the strategies that would allow us to stay agile and have the most impact. In short, we needed a new plan forward.

We knew that the way we created the new plan would be just as important as the end result. In keeping with our growing commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, we wanted to develop our plan with a collaborative, inclusive process that reflected input from all of our stakeholders: program and grantee alumni, funders, organizational partners and others. 

The process wasn’t easy. The consultant we hired was unafraid to expose our blind spots and biases; conducting the interviews and meetings over Zoom with new staff created a steep learning curve; and asking the hard questions and making tough decisions required deep trust and careful communication.

Centering the work of social entrepreneurs

Now, after a nine-month process that engaged our staff, board and stakeholders, we’ve shared our plan publicly. Building on our past success and learning, the plan affirms some of what we knew and charts a bold path forward with the focus and urgency this moment demands.

This new plan crystalizes our central mandate: to put social entrepreneurs at the center of our work. From now on, everything we do will be in service of sourcing, seeding and supporting existing and emerging leaders and ventures focused on designing the future of Jewish life. 

This strategy centers and elevates the greatest lever for change for the Jewish future — Jewish social entrepreneurship. We will do this by:

  • Sourcing and catalyzing support for high-impact Jewish social entrepreneurship
  • Redefining and amplifying the impact of our network
  • Measuring and telling a clear story of our impact and that of our network
  • Building an enabling environment for Jewish social entrepreneurship to thrive
  • Advancing experimentation with new models for the sector, including adapting revenue models and legal structures from the for-profit/social enterprise sector.

Just as we’ve clarified what strategies we’re elevating in the plan, we’ve also honed in on what work we will phase out and ultimately eliminate: consulting engagements and intrapreneur programming. By focusing more of our attention on what we do best, we can grant more attention, resources and funding to our network and adapt our work to better meet their needs.

Bittersweet transitions

For our team at UpStart, it wasn’t easy to arrive at a decision point that led to cutting certain programs and services. The decisions resulted in a reallocation of existing resources, sacrificing 10% of our current revenue and restructuring our organizational chart. As an organization built on helping others to be agile, innovative and impact-oriented, we knew that this was a moment for us to take our own advice. 

Organizational growth done right can include minimizing or even eliminating certain areas of focus to instead put more resources into what the organization does best and yields the most impact. This was something that we, our board and other stakeholders had to digest and ultimately we’ve come to celebrate.

The new plan offers concrete ways to pursue this more focused strategy, and will serve as our strategic compass for the next five years. A compass, importantly, is not a roadmap. Part of what makes UpStart unique is our agility to engage entrepreneurs and support them in specific contexts and moments, including those that unexpectedly arise. 

We are more nimble when we’re not spreading ourselves and our services too thin. By design, our emphasis on agility positions us to support the solutions to the big and urgent problems. The largest of those problems is what drives us every day: that too many people still opt out of Jewish life and are unable to find a community that reflects who they are or who they want to be. 

Moving forward with a solid foundation

As we tackle these new challenges, we’re equipping our team with the infrastructure, resources and processes we need to execute. One key learning from the plan was the importance of strengthening team members’ sense of belonging. A great plan with an uninspired and disconnected team will never succeed. 

Like others, UpStart faced challenges over the last two-plus years in this area. We need to cultivate a team environment able to withstand distance and different working styles. To deliver on our promise to our network, funders and partners, we must connect everyone on the team to each other and to our mission.

Part of our foundation will be frameworks that focus on metrics, evaluation and learning to support our whole team in measuring outcomes, telling the story of our network and influencing the trajectory of Jewish life. Nearly all of us in the field experienced the power of collaborations over the last two-plus years. Organizational leaders looked for opportunities to work together so more people could bring their expertise to the table. 

As we move forward, UpStart will continue facilitating deeper collaborations and partnerships within and on behalf of our expanding network. Mutual collaboration between our network and the Jewish community’s institutions are essential to create a more just, vibrant and inclusive Jewish future. 

This future can be, and must be, created now. There’s what I call a “patient urgency” reflected in the plan, while also being mindful that we need time, space and a solid foundation for intentional growth. This plan and the tactics within reflect the combination of radical impatience for impact and sensible patience for growth. 

With this renewed clarity of purpose and urgency, we know that the ideas of more and better are intricately connected. The need to invest more resources in the social entrepreneurs who are changing Jewish life everyday — and the people who will follow in their footsteps — will yield a greater number and diversity of people participating in Jewish life and will enhance the enduring vitality of Jewish life for generations to come. 

Aaron Katler is the CEO of UpStart.