Innovation through Consolidation

by Isaac Shalev

The good news when it comes to Jewish innovation is that it’s a lot easier to bring a new idea to life today than ever before. In the last decade, much has shifted in the Jewish community, and new ideas that once could not be heard have more stages from which to speak and more platforms on which to build. From ROI community grants to Natan/NEXT Grants, from The Joshua Venture and Bikkurim to Jewcer.com and many others, there are vehicles for young social entrepreneurs to get funding and support for their ideas.

However, major gaps still remain. At the JFNA General Assembly in Denver last year, I was honored to present alongside Lisa Farber Miller of the Rose Community Foundation and Nina Bruder of Bikkurim about second-stage organizations – their growth patterns, their struggles, and sometimes even their closings. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many very smart people, from the heads of these innovation organizations, to their lay leadership, to funders and Federation professionals. What I’ve heard, over and over again, is the same two things.

First, startup organizations struggle with shortages of expertise, experience and resources when it comes to operations and infrastructure. Nearly every executive director I’ve spoken to wants to spend more time building better programs, but instead spends time writing employee handbooks, or figuring out health benefits, or dealing with the challenge of finding office space and furniture. Most execs at these organizations have no specific experience in these areas, since most are social entrepreneurs whose passion is for program, not overhead. There are significant burdens of compliance and accountability in running a nonprofit, and if each innovative idea needs to be a new organization, then as a community, we are wasting our own charitable assets.

The second challenge that keeps coming up is that startups have no effective broad distribution channels for their excellent programs. Within the Jewish community our methods of organization and distribution have mostly been geographical, and therefore, local. The religious denominations, who have national reach, often struggle to serve as a national distribution platform because their congregations are highly autonomous. There is no national Board of Jewish Education that provides access to programming nationally. To scale, each nonprofit must go to each community, each Federation, each knot of local funders, and pitch, pitch, pitch. Coordinating a national initiative is often beyond the reach of smaller organizations, so few great ideas that are proven locally actually get replicated anywhere else. We continue to reinvent the wheel at great cost in dollars, in the frustration of talented professionals, and in time.

I’d like to propose a possible solution to both of these fundamental problems: consolidation. A new organization, with a national mandate, could focus only on building an infrastructure platform and a distribution network. It would offer corporate scaffolding, from fiscal sponsorship and financial back-end management, to shared administrative assistance, group-buying of health and other insurances, and co-location arrangements in as many cities as possible. Social entrepreneurs and existing innovation organizations could buy membership in this “out-cubator” and take advantage of some, or all, of these services for less than they currently pay in dollars, and much less than they currently spend in time. Any Jewish organization, project, or entrepreneur, broadly defined, should be allowed membership if it can obtain funding of at least $10,000 in funding from the public.

This new organization would then work with distribution partners including schools, synagogues, JCCs, Hillels, parents, and more, and share a well-organized, searchable, sortable catalogue of program options provided by its member organizations, much in the way that both the Jewish Journeys Project and Jewish Education Project are doing locally and in a more limited way right now. By making innovative program offerings more visible, easier to compare against one another, and easier to purchase, schools, synagogues and community institutions could, in the words of JESNA CIO Dr. Jonathan Woocher, increasingly transform into buyers of education and experience in a marketplace of ideas, rather than trying to build everything themselves.

The obvious objection to such a plan is whether the answer to having too many organizations is to add one more. My hope is that many smaller organizations will see the value of consolidating, and will dissolve their independent organizational forms. The consolidated organization will need guidance, backing and governance from the traditional representatives of the Jewish community, as well as a mandate for flexibility and a dedication to the platform ideal: to provide support and stability of creative and independent actors, not to direct their efforts. Fortunately, what seems like a very difficult endeavor is made easier by the fact that we’re not the first ones to attempt it. Tides.org is just one example in a field of philanthropic support organizations upon whom we can draw for inspiration and expertise. The time is ripe and the technology is there for us to think in terms of how we reach not just one more Jew, but how we can reach every Jew. To do that, we need a new platform and new distribution channels. Let’s make that a priority in the coming year.

Isaac Shalev is the former Executive Director of Storahtelling and the founder of Sage70, Inc., a consultancy serving growing organization. Isaac can be reached as Isaac@sage70.com