Leading Leaders Through Uncertainty

By Aaron Katler

All of my programs have been canceled.” “I’m just not sure how to plan for the future – will things get worse than they are now?” “I don’t know how much longer I can make payroll.”

These are just a few examples of the challenging realities that Jewish entrepreneurial ventures are experiencing with the onset of COVID-19 and its rippling effects throughout all aspects of communal life, Jewish and otherwise. We heard these stories on a recent call with the UpStart Venture Network, a group of more than 100 independent Jewish ventures from across North America. These ventures run the gamut from Jewish wilderness expeditions for young adults with mental health issues; to Jewish afterschool programs; to chapters of Muslim and Jewish women fighting hate together.

Their stories are not that dissimilar to those experienced by leaders and organizations across Jewish communal life. Furloughs, forced closures, rapidly decreasing revenue. These are uncertain, challenging, and deeply painful times – times that force us to ask how we can respond and take action in a way that is true to who we are, what we do, and what’s needed most. At UpStart, right now that means providing our network of Jewish social entrepreneurs with two things: 1) urgent resiliency training and 2) funds to ensure that as many of these high-impact leaders and ventures survive to run their dynamic programs once the crisis passes.

Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen the Jewish entrepreneurial sector expand rapidly. Jewish communities and funding have flocked to these programs because they’ve helped hundreds of thousands of Jews, their loved ones, and their communities find new ways to come together. They’ve demonstrated what it takes for Jewish community to keep up as Jewish needs and the world evolve. Most importantly, these ventures have often served as the only connection point to Jewish life for individuals seeking alternatives to our more traditional offerings.

Unlike many of our legacy institutions, these entrepreneurial leaders and their ventures often operate on razor-thin margins. They have small budgets, small teams, and typically lack the financial infrastructure to guide them through unprecedented times. Now, they’re at the ultimate breaking point as they navigate the new realities of lost revenue and a near cessation of all fundraising activities.

The failure to save this sector in the immediate-term represents the loss of jobs and healthcare coverage for hundreds of individuals who have dedicated their lives to building vibrant Jewish communities. In the longer-term, the loss may be even more severe as large institutions look at contracting to only their most essential services, potentially reversing the great strides we’ve made towards diversity and accessibility in Jewish life. Programs focused on arts and culture, spirituality, and social justice could easily be cut. As Felicia Herman of the Natan Fund wrote recently in Tablet, we’re facing “the financial collapse of the nonprofit sector and the disappearance of the very organizations that remind us of our highest humanitarian and communal values. Organizations that inspire, educate, connect, nurture, and provide care for all of us, including (but not only) the most vulnerable.”

It’s clear that every single organizational sector in the Jewish community is at risk. Many of those sectors are represented by a national umbrella organization that can advocate for them, centralize resources, and activate major emergency survival campaigns on their behalf. This has not historically been the case for entrepreneurial ventures. There’s no “Small Business Association” of the Jewish communal world. With the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, we knew that without a collective voice and advocate, these ventures would be underrepresented in Jewish communal conversations. We set out to learn – swiftly and intentionally – how we could best serve as an advocate for this critical network.

We did this by tapping into the design process we use for everything here at UpStart, and that process starts with listening. We immediately convened our Venture Network, creating a space for them to share their needs. We then used this data to start generating a plan to deliver resources – ones they could identify they needed and even those they couldn’t. We researched applicable nonprofit and small business measures in the recently-passed stimulus bill; and we committed to redirecting staff resources from our annual in-person convening, The Collaboratory, to immediately start building their resilience.

In that vein, we launched the Jewish Innovator Payroll Relief Fund, a 90-day emergency fund to ensure short-term employment and medical benefits for eligible ventures in the UpStart network. We are offering initial grants that may cover up to 75% of a venture’s payroll and benefits for three months – a necessary intervention for cash-strapped ventures who wouldn’t survive without this. As they move through the immediate health crisis, this financial support will not only keep them afloat, but will provide the bandwidth they need to plan for the future. We are currently fundraising for this initiative but are grateful to funders on the UpStart Philanthropic Advisory Council and several generous donors and UpStart Board members for pledging more than $600,000 in just one week.

We’re also offering resiliency training for our network, providing operational support and guidance in areas like how to build cash flow, engage in scenario planning, and explore mergers and acquisitions. We’re exploring technology platforms and solutions that could help them adapt to our new reality, and expanding access to our network of mentors to support them as they navigate uncharted territory.

On the other side of the financial crisis, we know that people will be craving connection and community – the very spaces and initiatives that the UpStart Venture Network has been creating for so long. These ventures, many of them agile, mobile, and virtual, will also represent a lifeline of programming to long-standing institutions as they undoubtedly contract to their need-to-have services. Many of these organizations will continue to bring marginalized voices to the forefront, not just as a conversation amongst many, but as their primary reason for being. The vibrancy of the entrepreneurial sector will be critical to ensuring that the progress we’ve madeover the last twenty years doesn’t disappear overnight.

The ways and reasons we gather will not return to normal for some time, if at all. There’s a lot we don’t know about the future. What we do know is that the creativity, innovative spirit, and optimism represented by these smaller ventures is exactly what we’ll need to get through this.

The question we ask is what role will we all play in ensuring the future is brighter on the other side of this darkness? What will we each do, as individuals and organizations, to ensure that COVID-19 doesn’t spark a retreat to what was, but rather serves as an impetus to build towards what might be? We know that there is a network of entrepreneurial leaders and ventures who are part of the solution, but only if they can survive the challenging days ahead. Our task is to do absolutely everything we can to increase their odds of succeeding.

Aaron Katler is the CEO of UpStart, which partners with the Jewish community’s boldest leaders to expand the picture of how Jews find meaning and come together. Upstartlab.org.