Internalizing Innovation

by Evonne Marzouk

Our recent investment in Jewish innovation has caused a proliferation of small, scattered non- profits organizing individual programs and competing against each other for scarce funding. Caryn Aviv and Shawn Landres have recently written important articles about this Jewish innovation landscape. Shawn Landres argues for impact investing as a new paradigm. Caryn Aviv suggests the possibility of “for-profit” organizations. Both of these are valuable potential models for future Jewish innovation. In this piece, I’d like to suggest another potential model for bringing innovation into existing Jewish institutions.

One of the challenges of this burgeoning innovation sector is that, as a Jewish community, we’re losing focus. Young Jews are connecting to smaller and smaller boutique organizations which struggle for funding. These organizations often lack the resources needed to build new partnerships or increase collaboration, and often operating apart from the mainstream Jewish community. Meanwhile, the mainstream Jewish institutions seem to be struggling for lack of new energy and inability to inspire the next generation.

As the founder of one of these innovative projects (Canfei Nesharim, a Jewish environmental organization launched in 2003), I too am concerned by the continued efforts to create new ideas and turn them into new organizations. Without a commitment to long-term funding, most of these groups will ultimately fail. Will the young, innovative Jews who started them continue their investment in Jewish life when the Jewish community failed to invest in them? It remains to be seen.

My organization – created in 2003, incorporated and welcomed into the Bikkurim Incubator for New Jewish Ideas in 2004, selected for Slingshot twice, supported by the ROI Community of Young Jewish Innovators, funded by Hazon mini-grants, recognized by The New York Jewish Week – would seem to be one of the winners. Yet in those nine years, I have never seen the opportunity to bring our innovative ideas and programs into the Federation system or other institutions of Jewish life.

As for many young leaders, creating a new nonprofit was not my goal. I had an idea that I wanted to bring into the Jewish community. The process of incorporating, getting non-profit status, creating a board and the continual slog of fundraising – otherwise known as, creating a nonprofit – was a second prize. It happened because I couldn’t seem to find a way to get this idea into the established Jewish institutions in the first place.

Federations and Jewish foundations seem to be struggling with a paradox. They want to engage young Jews. They want to give them freedom to take their ideas into the world and engage other Jews. They see the energy and passion in the younger generation. And yet somehow it seems that the Federation system is holding these organizations and young people at arm’s length – or at least, not creating a clear pathway to bring their passion and ideas into their own system.

Federations do not have to watch passively as new Jewish organizations are created, incorporate, raise funds, engage young Jews, and are judged by the fierce and unforgiving funding market without any support – indeed, with competition! – from the structure of Jewish institutions. There are numerous ways that Jewish institutions could support new Jewish ideas, and in so doing, bring the young Jews into their institutions, rather than watching them pull away.

For example, in addition to incubators for new Jewish non-profits like Bikkurim or Upstart, local federations or JFNA could create a different type of incubator, an “Intra-bator” that ends with the program internalized into the Federation itself. It could go like this: Select a few new ideas to bring into the local Federation, with the energized nonprofit leader running the project from the inside. The Federation could provide fiscal sponsorship, office space, access to local leaders, and some fundraising support, with a contract for (say) three years. All funds raised go through the Federation – which takes a fee for its services before the budget is allocated to the project. Events are run from within the Federation, with the explicit intention of bringing program participants into the Jewish community space where they may hear about other opportunities. At the end of three years, if the program is viable, it becomes a part of the Federation’s programming. If not, it ends, and the young leader has the connections inside the Federation to find another way to contribute his or her skills.

Less lucky organizations, which are not chosen for the Federation’s “Intra-bator” program, might still benefit from Federation support. What if, instead of having to create their own incorporation and boards, a set number of new or small Jewish projects became mini-agencies of their local Federation each year? The Federation could provide program space (see above), fiscal sponsorship (at a reasonable fee), and organizational structure for these small organizations, saving them from the more difficult and time consuming parts of organization creation. As above, the Federation could allow these young leaders access to Federation staff and leadership, with the dual intention of breathing new life into Federation programs and providing young leaders with Jewish communal connections. If the idea succeeds, it will do so in partnership with the Federation which will benefit from the influx of young Jews and new energy. If it fails, the leader will have connections which can take them elsewhere in Jewish life.

Another possibility is for Federations to integrate their local young organizations into major federation campaigns. Recently my organization took part in a “Give to the Max” online fundraising day, organized in my region by the online fundraising organization Razoo. Every organization in our region was eligible for special prizes for successful fundraising on that day (for example, the top fundraiser each hour received a small funding bonus). There was a shared sense of camaraderie for raising funds for a region. I’m sure this is how Super Sunday used to feel for Federation fundraisers, but it’s lost its allure. Connecting Super Sunday to an online fundraiser and getting young Jewish leaders to engage their funders on the same day as the organized Federation would have multiple benefits: it would bring the local Jewish community together; it would promote local projects that Federation donors may not otherwise know about; it would have the Federation be seen as a convening and uniting force – even by people who may not have previously supported it.

A similar model for JFNA may be the federal government “Combined Federal Campaign,” in which numerous organizations are given a number and work together to support a shared campaign over a two month period. In either case, federations could take an appropriate fee for their coordination, while also bringing the whole community together for shared charitable efforts. This type of collaborative campaign may be more attractive to many young innovators than some recent competitive contests, such as the Jewish Community Heroes campaign, in which the winners take all.

If anything is clear from the Jewish innovation sector, it’s that young Jews have a lot of interesting ideas. But those ideas do not have to lead to a proliferation of small, competitive organizations and disenchanted, failed leaders stuck on the outside of Jewish life. As Jews, we succeed when we come together. Let’s use this opportunity of Jewish innovation to do that.

Evonne Marzouk is the founder of Canfei Nesharim: Sustainable Living Inspired by Torah, and the leader of, a social media website uniting Jewish environmentalists around the world.