Innovation: One Size Does Not Fit All

by John Ruskay

Seth Cohen, Yoni Gordis, and others are raising important questions about innovation. I’m interested in exploring where innovation and sustainability meet on the Jewish communal landscape.

Most would agree: innovations can only have lasting impact if they are sustained. Why launch a project and see it succeed, only to abandon it for the next new thing? Yet, sustaining – providing the funds necessary to strengthen new and existing programs and community institutions – often gets a bad rap. For some, it lacks the appeal of innovation. I’d argue that sustaining is the silent hero in this narrative. For in sustaining our community’s proven initiatives and institutions, we are positioned to act boldly, respond to crises decisively, and seize opportunities to innovate.

Sustaining done right provides a platform for innovation, and successful innovation creates something worth sustaining. So why are these two concepts – each pivotal to the health of our community – so often considered adversaries?

Defining Innovation

Innovation is one of those words that’s lost clarity as its gained popularity. Webster defines it as “the introduction of something new,” leaving room for both positive and negative results.

For the purposes of this piece, I’ll cite the definition in the article mentioned by Seth Cohen, The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape, which describes innovation as “the creation, development, and implementation of a new idea, method, or device with the aim of improving efficiency, effectiveness, or competitive advantage.”

Additionally, for those questioning what the CEO of a large, 90-year-old organization could say on a subject that has become equated with small start-ups, Wikipedia notes: “All organizations can innovate, including for example hospitals, universities, and local governments.” It’s not about the size or age of an organization, rather how nimble, bold, and creative it can be in responding to emerging needs and opportunities.

A Record That Speaks Volumes

At a community conversation on the economic downturn convened by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Week in March 2009, Dan Doctoroff, former New York City deputy mayor for economic development, praised UJA-Federation for developing Connect to Care. He declared that the program, designed to respond to the growing numbers of middle-class Jews dealing with job loss, exemplifies innovation.

We were able to develop Connect to Care because years of sustaining created the necessary platform. The program draws together the resources of UJA-Federation’s beneficiary agencies in collaboration with synagogues to make available family counseling, vocational training, pro bono legal services, and emergency loans at single-stop locations in each of the five boroughs, Westchester, and Long Island. It comes at a moment when the economic crisis has many calling on nonprofits to support innovation despite limited resources.

At UJA-Federation, we’ve long rallied the community to embrace change, identifying needs and taking an idea from conception to measured results. In just the last 10 years, we created an end-of-life/hospice system for the New York Jewish community, launched a professional training institute at Columbia University for Jewish day school principals, developed the Israel Trauma Coalition, and far more.

Recently, I wrote about our efforts to strengthen Jewish identity among Israelis. We were among the first to recognize the need and commit to it in significant ways. Now, Israeli leaders like Tzipi Livni, Natan Sharansky, and Yuli Edelstein are increasingly speaking about the importance of the issue.

Breaking New Ground

Other large, not-so-young organizations and movements have also demonstrated that innovation can come from the “establishment.” Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston joined with Hebrew College to transform Jewish adult learning. While the Reform movement had long embraced social action as a core value, establishing the Religious Action Center in Washington elevated the agenda to another level.

Catalyzing Nationwide Change

One paradigm-shifting program illustrates how a large institution can have systemic impact both within the Jewish community and far beyond. In 1986, UJA-Federation worked with its beneficiary agencies to bring human services to the growing number of senior adults living in Manhattan’s Penn South, a moderate-income co-op. Our purpose: delay the disruption and cost of institutional care and maintain seniors at home in their communities.

With a grant from UJA-Federation, the first professionally staffed NORC – naturally occurring retirement community – supportive service program was created. After identifying far larger numbers of seniors who could benefit from supportive services, we brought the project to additional housing complexes; obtained state funding to create pilots outside the city; and with United Jewish Communities, brought the idea to Congress and received both funding and bipartisan support to establish NORC supportive services throughout the United States.

Where Sustaining Meets Innovation

Successful innovations, including NORCs, need to be sustained. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, sustaining – long the perceived domain of federations – and innovating were placed in a dichotomous relationship. Funders felt they needed to choose: the start-up or the federation. But, as mentioned earlier, even the strongest innovations need to be sustained, and many struggle under the restraints of this false dichotomy.

Take Taglit-Birthright Israel, launched in 1999 to send Jews between the ages of 18 to 26 on a 10-day trip to Israel. It was and remains a groundbreaking program. Today, philanthropists, the State of Israel, and federations face the challenge of providing funding to sustain it. And Birthright itself will need to continue innovating to stay compelling. There is no room for complacency, not among the start-ups and not among the established institutions.

UJA-Federation has long championed start-ups, providing funding to give them flight. At the same time, we sustain more than 100 community-building, educational, and health and human-service agencies. This isn’t a static relationship, and it’s not only one way. Our support is what allows agencies to grow in order to meet the changing demands of a dynamic community. Had we not sustained these 100 agencies – placing them under stringent review, strengthening infrastructure, sharing expertise – we would not have had the platform to launch Connect to Care and numerous other initiatives.

A community that can weather this economic storm will need to embrace new ideas and tested methods – the small and the large, the start-up and the 90-year-old organization. We innovate with the goal of creating programs worthy of being sustained, and we sustain so we will always be positioned for innovation. It is a symbiotic relationship, one that’s not defined by size or age. The critical issue remains what it has always been: clarifying what’s needed to create a flourishing Jewish future.

John Ruskay is executive vice president and chief executive officer of UJA-Federation of New York.