Resetting – An Unprecedented Meeting of Philanthropists

by Maya Bernstein

cross-posted at Huffington Post (Jumpstart)

In a recent blog post, Marty Linsky, a leadership expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, asked, “Will you reset or hunker down?” Will we will treat today’s economic crisis as a “one-time thing,” and wait for it to blow over, or as a manifestation of a larger pattern, that should encourage us to re-think the way in which we interact and function? In the months since his first musings, he has applied the “reset” metaphor to partisan politics, culture, and the nonprofit sector.

Here in San Francisco, we have been thinking about what it might mean to reset the Jewish community. On April 29th, UpStart Bay Area, a new nonprofit dedicated to supporting innovative Jewish social entrepreneurs, organized a conversation on “Stepping into New Territory: Rethinking Social Enterprise.” In partnership with Northern California Grantmakers and the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, philanthropists and grant-makers from within and beyond the Bay Area Jewish community were invited to gather to discuss issues and challenges surrounding the funding of innovation.

This was an unprecedented event in the Bay Area; never before had Jewish and non-Jewish grantmakers gathered together in “Jewish space” to discuss needs and tactics, and it reset our expectations about how Jewish and general philanthropy and social innovation can interact and benefit from one another. The event was a ground-breaking first step in what will hopefully be an ongoing conversation about today’s most pressing social needs, and the most creative, effective ways to meet them. Participants included key players in philanthropy, such as the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, the Koret Foundation, Hispanics in Philanthropy, the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, the San Francisco Foundation, Pacific Community Ventures, and the Center for Effective Philanthropy, among others.

The event was moderated by Lucy Bernholz, the founder and president of Blueprint Research & Design, Inc., a strategy consulting firm that helps philanthropic individuals and institutions achieve their missions; she also serves as UpStart’s founding board chair. The panelists were Sandy Herz, the Senior Advancement Officer at the Skoll Foundation, Shawn Landres, the co-founding CEO and research director of Jumpstart in Los Angeles, and Toby Rubin, the founder and CEO of UpStart Bay Area. Carla Javits, Executive Director of REDF, and Dr. Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewsh Institute of Religion provided responsive comments as well.

Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, opened the meeting by sharing that it was his experience as the founder of two Los Angeles non-profits, Progressive Jewish Alliance and IKAR, each innovative and enduring projects dedicated to community-building and social justice, which led him to his current position in an established Jewish institution. His career trajectory is indicative of the tremendous potential synergies that could emerge from funding innovation; a “resetting” in one area could facilitate the opportunity to “hunker-down” in another, opening new possibilities in existing institutions.

In 1998, there were approximately seven new Jewish organizations, tentatively emerging, green and small, from in between the cracks of the familiar, seemingly sturdy establishment. Today, there are over 300 small, energetic, thriving new entities, and the landscape, wild, bright, and growing, is radically different. This is not a fringe phenomenon. This is a movement with transformative power. The Jewish “Innovation Ecosystem,” as described by Landres and Jumpstart co-founder Joshua Avedon in a recent report co-published with The Natan Fund and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, is thriving. It is nourished by a broader community of innovative social entrepreneurs and by the values and passion of tikkun olam, the striving to improve the world and address its most profound social, economic, and environmental concerns. In fact, as the survey has shown, many Jewish social entrepreneurs are working outside the Jewish world, but are clearly motivated by Jewish values (For more insights on Jewish social entrepreneurship today, download The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape.)

Landres explained that today’s generation of Jewish change-makers is in the process of resetting because of historical necessity. Jewish institutions that are now the cornerstone of Jewish communal life were developed over the course of the 20th century with the goal of integrating immigrants into American society. That goal has been achieved. There is currently an urgency to leverage the passion and creativity of the next generation of Jews who are attempting to create a new Jewish landscape, lest they express their values elsewhere. However, as Jumpstart’s 2008 Survey of New Jewish Organizations documented, Jewish start-ups are feeling the effects of the economic crisis (along with everyone else) but lack the reserves to weather the economic downturn.

The Skoll Foundation’s Sandy Herz emphasized that there is no silver bullet to address complicated problems, and that difficult issues must be approached from a variety of angles, integrating different possibilities, and thinking outside of silos so that one can maximize one’s impact. Herz lauded Jeff Skoll as a model of “resetting.” In addition to the Skoll Foundation, which invests in social entrepreneurs, connects them to one another, and celebrates them, sharing their stories and perspectives through various media outlets, Skoll has founded Capricorn Investment Group, which helps clients focus on a social, in addition to a financial, bottom line in their investment strategy; Participate Media, which seeks first to entertain, and then to inspire people to take action and the Skoll Urgent Threats Fund, which will be run by Google’s Larry Brilliant, and will focus on addressing the world’s most pressing social problems. All of the Skoll programs are raising the public’s recognition of social enterprise, and bringing it to the forefront of people’s attention.

The choice between hunkering down and resetting may not always be obvious, and the categories, like anything else, are complicated and multi-faceted. The meeting’s bottom line was expressed by UpStart’s Toby Rubin, in the form of a plea to foundations and philanthropists. Though they may want to hunker down, she said, and fund “tried and true” organizations with strong records of accomplishment, funders should maintain a diversified portfolio. Don’t hunker down 100%. Ensure that some percentage (15, 20, 25%?) is directed toward innovation. Because if they do not do so, significant numbers of promising innovations and emerging social entrepreneurs will likely be shut down, setting our efforts to find creative solutions to social problems back for many years to come.

The pieces are currently shifting. And, as risky and uncertain as the realm of “resetting” may be, there is a current need for every institution to shift both what it is doing and how it is being done. This groundbreaking meeting was a model for conversations that should be taking place across the country, connecting existing institutions and innovators, grantmakers and grantees, Jews and non-Jews alike, and resetting our expectations of what it means to do world-changing philanthropic and nonprofit work in the 21st century.

Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco-based nonprofit whose mission is to advance early stage non-profits that offer innovative Jewish engagement opportunities. (Special thanks to Shawn Landres for his contributions and editorial advice.)