Selling Innovation

An often-heard lament among supporters of startups is that philanthropists have never fully embraced Jewish innovation. To the extent that that’s true, it may be partly because of the way innovation has been marketed.

Successful marketing depends on persuading the target audience that a product offers something that the buyer wants. In the case of innovation the value proposition includes its very newness: it’s a new movement, it helps new ideas come to fruition, it adapts to new realities. Novelty as a benefit has a limited shelf life, however. It works only so long as the product is still fresh. The longer the case is made for innovation per se, the more dated it will seem – and innovation has been with us now for a number of years.

There’s also some vagueness about the product called “innovation.” The term can be applied variously to leadership training, incubators, and startups, which are not the same things. Leadership training, in particular, is not inherently innovative. Leaders can step into long-established institutions, as PresenTense and Jumpstart (among others) have pointed out, while startups are generally defined as strictly new entities.

More broadly, advocates may argue on behalf of innovation in general, but donors typically support a specific initiative they care about, whether in religion or technology or education or social justice. When a funder donates to a specific sector or organization or leader, it may be unimportant to them how innovative it is so long as the project accomplishes something they believe in.

Results also matter. The number of people on mailing lists and attending events reflects the reach of startups, but reach alone isn’t enough. A school isn’t successful just because it has a lot of students, and a hospital is not necessarily fulfilling its mission because it has a lot of patients. Their performance is also measured by students’ test scores and patient recovery rates. Funders who want more Jews to become engaged with the community, for instance, will want to know how a project is accomplishing that. Innovators may wish to change the way success is measured, but financial supporters evidently aren’t prepared to do that.

Startups are often talked about as a new paradigm that is going to take over. Meanwhile many prospective donors are older, wealthy, conservative decision-makers who do not welcome the sort of profound disruption that the innovation sector advertises. What’s more, the polarized way that innovation is often discussed, as if “you’re for us or you’re against us,” is bound to alienate potential donors, many of whom will feel attacked for not taking sides. Innovation, in short, is not being marketed in a way that fits the needs and values and desires of its intended audience.

The oppositional language of change-through-disruption is more characteristic of a political process than of a marketing campaign. In that sense it is consistent with the ongoing strategy of lobbying for more funding through rhetorical appeals to “the philanthropic sector” rather than marketing the idea in a way that speaks to the needs and desires of individual decision-makers. But what works as a rallying cry among the faithful – “we are the future!” – doesn’t usually sit well with people who have power and money and a vested interest in the status quo. Not to mention the fact that excluding participants over 45 doesn’t always play well with people over 60.

If innovation advocates want to win over the philanthropists who are not yet on board, they might rethink the messages of the innovation sector and to shift them from a political vocabulary to a marketing framework. Focus on evolution instead of triumphalism. Stress integration rather than replacement. Talk about building on a solid foundation rather than destruction. Instead of transformation, speak in terms of helping our community adapt to new challenges. Be collaborative rather than confrontational.

There is one problem that better marketing won’t solve, however: the lack of a financial model for sustaining startups. It’s no longer reasonable, if it ever was, to expect philanthropists to make large donations to support a process with no clear path to viability. For that reason alone it makes less sense to tout the virtues of innovation as a category than to focus on the strengths of each individual project: its mission, its leadership, and how well it fits the priorities of funders. That’s always been what matters most.

Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, the fiscal sponsor for more than 20 innovative Jewish projects. He earned his MBA at Harvard Business School.