Integrating Innovation Into The Jewish Ecosystem

innovationWhen we talk about innovation, what do we mean? A groundswell is building around the importance of innovation in Jewish life, much as a consensus grew around the need for “change” in the course of 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. But “change” means different things to different people, and so does innovation.

First, there’s the question of generations. As a practical matter, Jewish innovation is understood by a number of funders to mean the work of people under 40. Of course imagination and originality are not limited to any age group. So if the goal for the Jewish community were simply to come up with novel, paradigm-shifting solutions to our community’s problems, funders would be equally interested in innovative solutions across the board. When the support of innovation is limited to Jews in their twenties and thirties, it points to a different end: promoting involvement in Jewish activities among a population that otherwise might be lost to Jewish communal life. That’s a laudable goal, but it is different from promoting new projects per se.

Second, innovation, like “change,” often conveys an anti-establishment subtext. Yonatan Gordis, in his superb article “On the Value and Values of Jewish Social Entrepreneurship,” situates the start of the current movement in the anti-establishment Sixties: “the Jewish social entrepreneurship of our age had its first roots in the waves of social change that began to affect almost every sector of American society in the 1960s and 1970s,” he writes. The anti-establishment understanding of innovation carries with it the implication that our institutions have failed us, and that the best hope for the future lies outside the establishment.

A corollary of that view is the notion that the establishment is ultimately incapable of innovation, which leaves the task to people who are not part of the system. Yet Franklin Roosevelt created Social Security, Nixon ended the U.S. isolation from mainland China, and Gorbachev instituted perestroika. What’s more, many social problems – such as human services, education, and public safety – can be solved only on the scale of large, established institutions, a fact that is correspondingly true in Jewish life. And as Yonatan Gordis writes, “innovation can and must be a mainstay of any existing organization that seeks to maintain its relevance to its product and its constituency.”

Third, it’s easy to romanticize the brilliance of the lone genius, but that’s a nineteenth-century conceit that is now far out of date. Though we may credit Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Sergei Brin and Mark Zuckerberg with startups that ushered in the computer/Internet revolution, the Internet would not exist without its predecessor the ARPA Net, created by government and universities 40 years ago. And personal computers would not have become ubiquitous if IBM had not first brought data processing to businesses on a large scale in the 1950s. In other words, a true innovation ecosystem requires not just startups and their funders, but also a developed and hospitable infrastructure to work within.

Fourth, innovation is not a steady process; it has distinct stages. The challenges of a startup are different from those facing a five-year-old nonprofit that is ready to raise money for institutional support, as distinct from program funding. Far more attention has been given thus far to incubating new Jewish projects than to helping successful startups secure their future as viable institutions. Building a successful program into a self-sustaining organization may not be as exciting as working with startups but it is crucial to the health of the ecosystem.

Fifth, there is sometimes a tendency for advocates of innovation to cast the issue in terms of an argument in favor of innovation per se, as if it’s a matter of being for or against it. Of course it’s really an issue of priorities, not pro or con. In any case, blaming the target audience – in this case, some philanthropists – for tepid enthusiasm for innovation is not helpful to anybody. If the case for innovation has not been as successful with potential supporters as advocates would like, it may be because the abstract value of innovation is not a sufficient or persuasive argument.

So what do we do? Here are four recommendations:

  • Separate the issue of innovation from young-adult participation and make strong cases for each. It only blurs and diffuses the message when the two are tacitly linked.
  • Cite examples and demonstrate the tangible, measurable, positive changes in the Jewish community as a result of innovative projects, as one would in any fund-raising case statement. Generic appeals on behalf of the virtues of innovation are a poor substitute.
  • Don’t pit innovators against the establishment, and actively build active partnerships between them They need each other. It’s a classic win-win solution.
  • Support a combination of training and consulting for successful startups in their fourth or fifth year of operation, to give them the tools to fund-raise for institutional stability and sustainability.

The “ecosystem” for innovation in the Jewish world is far from complete. Social entrepreneurship has become an important sector in Jewish life, but it mostly operates in small ecological niches. In order for it to thrive there needs to be a broadly favorable climate that supports its growth, as well as interdependence across the sectors of the ecosystem. Innovation can’t grow if it sets itself in opposition to the prevailing ecology. It needs to be integrated within that larger ecology, in theory and practice, and that begins with its proponents.

Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, vice-president of Zeek Media, and an occasional contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy. Bob lives in Jerusalem.