Innovation Isn’t Dead, It’s Working

by Lisa Lepson and Will Schneider

Toward the end of 2012 the central organization in the Jewish environmental movement, Hazon, merged with the more than 100-year old Jewish project, Isabella Freedman. The linking of an organization that has been identified in the Slingshot guide as a “Standard Bearer of Jewish innovation” with a century old project set off a round of casual conversations predicting the possible end of the era of innovation and the beginning of the next phase – with communal leaders focusing on potential “integration” and “mash-up” of the innovation and established organizations. As the innovations of the past decade find new models to move forward, our collective attention has begun to shift with them. Funders, too, are concerned with funding models for “2nd stage” organizations. Is this to the detriment of new ideas? These concerns and issues that have arisen only prove the success of the investments in innovation to this point.

For the record, Slingshot and Joshua Venture Group applaud the Hazon/Isabella Freedman merger. Furthermore, Slingshot and JVG encourage organizations to always be on the lookout for ways to increase efficiency and impact. The theory is that from a market perspective, integration will eliminate redundancy, foster greater sustainability, and marshal resources. As the innovation community matures, our structure must mature as well.

Reading these articles on eJewishPhilanthropy.com we grew concerned that the community focus would shift completely away from support of early-stage entrepreneurial initiatives.

The philanthropic community took risks by investing in Hazon a decade ago, and those investments are paying off today. That is to say, innovation works: the promise of a start-up Jewish environmental organization is now re-shaping the Jewish future. While we need to support success stories like Hazon, we must also ensure the best new ideas are brought to market. We cannot shift our community focus to integration or 2nd stage support, but rather 2nd stage support must be added to our community focus. Are there still worthwhile new ideas? Of course.

Why should we, as a community, continue to be vigilant about encouraging innovation?

Innovation is relevancy – as long as there are Jews not being served by existing organizations, there is a need for fresh ideas, perspectives, and programs. Entrepreneurial ventures serve those who are not yet being served by the mainstream, and though we as a community have become more inclusive and are reaching more people, we still have many more obstacles to overcome.

Some ideas were meant to die, to live briefly, and to be incorporated in other ways. This is not failure; this is the process of entrepreneurship. As a community, we have a greater interest in the health of individual organizations, sometimes at the expense of (and certainly regardless of) the health of the system.

Judaism will continue to change and adapt, as it has throughout time – and when doing so, new ideas will surface, entrepreneurs will arrive, and with our community’s support, they will flourish.

Conclusion

If investments made in the early 2000’s are paying off today, what investments are we making today that will pay off in 2023? Can we have both a long-lens focus on 2023, and support innovation Standard Bearers through growth and transitions? We will need to, because as long as there are underserved needs in Jewish life, new projects and organizations will emerge to meet them. Our imperative is to increase the odds of success for the best of these projects, and if we support them properly we will enjoy a wave of mergers in 2023.

Lisa Lepson is the Executive Director of Joshua Venture Group. Will Schneider is the Executive Director of Slingshot.

cross-posted at Jewish Communal Fund (NY) Blog