Powered by the People

by Adam Simon

Last week, together with the Jim Joseph (JJF) and Righteous Persons (RPF) foundations, we launched the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund, a $500,000 grant pool for projects using new media tools to help young people engage with Jewish life and ideas.

Successful collaborations such as this take time as partners align priorities while achieving consensus on numerous details. What stands out to me on this process, however, is the one decision we agreed upon almost immediately: opening the grant pool to individuals and for-profit entities, rather than solely the not-for-profit organizations that comprise almost all of our grantmaking.

Why is this notable? Because when you consider that among the hundreds of grants made by the three foundations in the past several years, only a handful have been made to individuals – and none has been made to for-profit entities – this leap from our bread and butter to relatively unchartered waters is actually pretty remarkable.

There are several reasons why funding individuals and for-profits makes so much sense for this initiative:

  1. It is important to fund the person and the idea, not just the idea. Individuals with the vision and the blueprints for utilizing emerging technologies to the betterment of Jewish life will be powerful additions to the Jewish landscape. Not only will their projects be valuable, but they themselves will be a vital part of the network to sustain our global Jewish community.
  2. We hope to gain new perspectives on how Jewish life is created. The best Jewish not-for-profits facilitate individual expression of Jewish life, rather than create Jewish activities that individuals opt in to (or – more frequently – opt out of). Many for-profit companies have the infrastructure, know-how and diverse experiences needed to create ways to address Jewish community issues. While we know that Jewish not-for-profits have vitally important ideas to contribute to this conversation, we predict that by opening the funding criteria we will encourage a more diverse range of projects from a wider range of perspectives.
  3. The line between for-profits and not-for-profits is blurring. While still rare up until a few years ago, these days “social entrepreneurship,” “social impact investing,” “double bottom line,” “doing well and doing good,” and other concepts acknowledging the power of financially motivated social change are in the mainstream of the philanthropic and secular not-for-profit community today. Foundations need to explore this space to find ways to handle it more appropriately, and limiting the Jewish community’s exposure to one designation under the U.S. tax code is short sighted.
  4. Our relationships as funders with individuals are critical to us achieving the type of change we want to see in the world. I expect that none of our foundations will ever stop making grants to Jewish organizations. Moreover, the Fund is in no way prioritizing individuals or for-profits above not-for-profits. The latter, after all, are still among the most effective and efficient ways to support large numbers of individuals exploring Jewish life. At the same time, our voice and message will be magnified much more powerfully if we amplify the grassroots initiatives that come from start-up entrepreneurs. Jewish institutions do not have a monopoly on great ideas, and through this funding strategy, we are eliminating an obstacle to more ideas coming to fruition.
  5. Speaking of affiliation, the reality of the world around us is that while young people appear not to affiliate with organizations, they affiliate with one another in massive numbers. With the advent of cheap emerging technologies and powerful social platforms, personal networks and virtual engagement are growing much more rapidly than the numbers of pre-established institutions. The average Facebook user, for example, has 130 friends and is connected to 80 community pages, groups and events. Investing in the peer-to-peer based communities of individuals – even those based on relationships unrelated to formal institutions – will hopefully allow us to leverage the tremendous potential of how young people are affiliating today.

But what does it all mean? It means that our three foundations recognize the need to adapt, to broaden our perspectives, to learn from what is happening in the wider world and to apply it to our work in the Jewish community. Only by doing so can we ensure that Judaism will remain relevant well into the 21st century.

On the other hand, it necessarily raises a question: if we do not invest in and support Jewish not-for-profit institutions, what infrastructure will be in place to support Jewish life in the coming decades?

And so, I pose this to you: Do you think that 20 years from now, small groups of individuals will dominate the Jewish community landscape at the expense of the larger entities we are familiar with today? Is there room for both Jewish not-for-profit organizations and individuals – not to mention companies – as creators of Jewish life without detrimental competition for time, mind space and dollars? If so, what will this picture look like?

What do you think?

Adam Simon is the director of Jewish programs at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, overseeing the Foundation’s Jewish young adult engagement portfolio, Adam was the recipient of the J.J. Greenberg Memorial Award at the 2010 Jewish Funders Network International Summit. He lives outside Washington, D.C., with his wife and two young children.