Innovating on Tradition: Reflections on the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund
by Lucy Bernholz and Conan Liu
Every day we hear about new digital applications that make it easier to compare products, find news, animate books, and play games. We also hear from the creators of these tools that they want to do more than just build the next best shopping site; they want to do something that matters. At the same time, most organizations that serve our communities struggle to maintain working technology infrastructures, let alone to experiment and imagine how to achieve their missions in a digital world. Bridging this gap between media innovation and mission accomplishment was the core goal of the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund (the Fund), a pilot launched in 2010 by the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, and the Schusterman Family Foundation. The funders introduced an online, open application process designed to identify and fund digitally based projects that “enriched and renewed Jewish traditions, revitalized Jewish institutions, and preserved Jewish history.”
More than 300 applications poured in from individuals, nonprofits, and commercial enterprises. Drawing from their networks, the funders quickly built a team of 75 volunteers to review and score these applications across a range of criteria. The 30 highest-scoring applications were advanced for review to an advisory panel consisting of six experts, and nine projects were ultimately chosen as winners, receiving a total of $500,000 from the Fund. The portfolio of winners included a wide range of innovative technology projects: virtual communities, mobile applications, a digital music platform, videos series, liturgy translators, and more.(1) These projects were designed to engage individuals in Jewish life by using digital tools to re-imagine Jewish history; strengthen Jewish identity through music and the arts; connect Jews with religious services and communities; and change the ways traditional Jewish education is delivered. The very act of establishing the Fund has already helped prompt conversations around technology and social innovation in organizations that may not have otherwise occurred. These conversations will only continue to grow and deepen as we watch and monitor the types of impact that these projects have on Jewish communities and individuals.
The ultimate outcome of the JNMIF will rest as much on what the community learns from this experiment as it does on the results of the individual projects. To spur discussion about the experiment, we reflect below on three questions:
- What is the state of new media innovation in the organized Jewish community?
- How can the JNMIF process be improved?
- What might come next?
What is the state of new media innovation in the organized Jewish community?
The community could use a digital upgrade – or so the pool of applicants to the Fund suggests.
While the applicants to the Fund demonstrated clear excitement and enthusiasm for the potential that digital innovation could play in enriching Jewish life, the project also revealed a wealth of opportunities for funders to help build core digital capacity within the community. Naturally, many digitally strong organizations and individuals appeared in the applicant pool, but other applicants were not as well equipped for digital innovation: they need stronger technical capacities and deeper experience working with and integrating digital and social media tools into their practices.
Six months after the Fund selected its first round of winners, The Natan Fund ran a similar digital media application process that led to a similar realization. The applicants for that pool confirmed a strong need for digital media upgrades among Jewish organizations.
Individuals steeped in digital and social media may be best positioned to understand how these tools can radically transform education, community building, or art in the Jewish community. If these individuals are already inside community organizations, they will need support for experiments that, at their most innovative, challenge and ultimately improve upon existing operating practice.
How can the JNMIF process be improved?
The Fund may be able to identify even more innovative proposals and opportunities going forward by adjusting its criteria, expanding its outreach, and attracting more thinkers and makers.
We found that the applicants demonstrating highly innovative ideas were not always well-poised to implement them. The fact that these two criteria – innovation, and the ability to implement a project – were not always in sync suggests that we may have advanced only those proposals that scored well across both sets of criteria, potentially leaving some of the edgier proposals out of contention.
To retain more innovative proposals for future grant cycles, we might encourage more visual and interactive applications, as well as make time to interview a subset of applicants. This would help final decision makers better gauge the applicants behind the ideas and possibly assist with implementation. A next iteration of this Fund might also simply reduce the number of application criteria.
Expanded outreach could represent another opportunity. Blueprint Research + Design, (now Arabella Advisors) helped design and facilitate this application process, in which the Fund solicited applications through an RFP and relied primarily on the funders’ networks as distribution channels.(2) We also worked with the three foundations to reach out beyond their own networks with word of the Fund. With the help of a marketing consultant, a deliberate online outreach effort, phone calls, and in-person requests, the Fund attracted some attention outside of institutional Jewish community organizations. However, very few organizations and individuals beyond the existing networks applied for the Fund. One experiment doesn’t tell us whether this was an outreach failure, an effect of a lack of incentives for participation beyond the known networks, or something else. But future efforts would be strengthened by direct inquiries to the commercial technology and media communities about what kinds of incentives would work there. More time developing “ambassador” relationships into these networks, using old-fashioned face-to-face introductions and requests, and a much more sustained effort focused on generating ideas and applications, not just awareness, would also help.
Next iterations of the Fund should also consider seeking recommendations from experts, engaging actual ambassadors to different networks, and even hosting opportunities for people with different expertise to meet and brainstorm. “Hackathons,” caffeine-fueled weekends spent building technology solutions, are effective gatherings in the open government movement. Similar events could be useful for connecting technologists to community organizations, as long as support is provided to bridge the different working cultures of these groups. Previous Fund applicants and winners can be asked to help improve the process and engage the next circle of thinkers and makers. It might also be fruitful to ask a few people whose work embodies the edge of digital innovation for learning or community-building why they didn’t apply.
The total pool of $500,000 was clearly enough to attract interest from community organizations, but may not have been enough to attract innovators from the commercial sector. Providing additional incentives to encourage commercial entities to apply will be key if that is indeed an audience we want to target.
Finally, future efforts should include an opportunity for advisors to meet the finalists, either in person or via video-conference. This is especially important when individual applicants, without an organizational structure to document their capabilities, are part of the mix.
What might come next?
By virtue of its open application process, the Fund has generated a baseline for understanding the state of digital media in Jewish community organizations. Sharing the applications, ideas, and data from that process with the community will help future applicants build from that starting point.
The Fund did not find a vast universe of “digital leapfrogs” – individuals or enterprises that are effectively enhancing Jewish community life with cutting-edge technology. But it can help to build one – and it can follow a number of paths to do so. One option is to deliberately match competent content and community experts with digital creators. Commissioning “edgy” examples of digital Jewish content would be another way to highlight possibilities, while broad support to meet core organizational needs would close the gap between what is possible and what is made real. There is also a role for fellowships that would support ideas and their creators across a range of enterprises.
Innovation requires an ecosystem of ideas, a range of expertise, room for failure, and time. It necessitates a funding environment that doesn’t demand immediate success and organizational structures that are willing to risk what has worked well in the past for an uncertain future. Building on and instilling each of these characteristics in the Jewish community is possible. Expanding and encouraging all of them is necessary.
Lucy Bernholz is a Managing Director at Arabella Advisors. She is an internationally renowned consultant and writer on philanthropy and the social economy. The Huffington Post selected her as a national “Game Changer” for her work on philanthropy, technology, information, and policy which appears on her award-winning blog, philanthropy2173.com.
1. A full list of winners and project descriptions is available here.
2. This process for fielding and choosing winners for the Fund was informed by other contests and competitions that are taking place in the field of philanthropy. These include the Digital Media & Learning Contest supported by the MacArthur Foundation, the Knight News Challenge (KNC), and the Buckminster Fuller Challenge (BFC).