Smart Partnerships, Wise Investments: Joshua Venture Group Refines its Model

By Lisa Lepson

In the late 90’s, the idea of Jewish social entrepreneurship started to take root as an offshoot of the global social change movement. As a result, Joshua Venture Group formed with backing from three pioneering American Jewish foundations – the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund. The goal was to empower young leaders with the resources and tools to build influential projects that would bring new life to the Jewish community.

The model worked immediately, demonstrating that if we carefully selected our fellows and infused their fledgling organizations with some capital and skills training, they would take off – transforming the Jewish community in the process. The fruits of this idea included organizations such as Sharsheret and Keshet that are now addressing previously unmet needs in the Jewish community. Today, Sharsheret offers support services to thousands of Jewish women with breast or ovarian cancer and their families. Keshet provides an influential voice and a safe space for LGBTQ Jews across the North American Jewish community.

Of course, the world of Jewish social innovation has matured and so, too, have we. We have honed our selection process and tightened our curriculum while also adding programming for our alumni to ensure that we are a constant source of support and guidance for our fellows in their efforts to build lasting organizations. Last year, Joshua Venture Group, in partnership with Bikkurim, PresenTense, ROI Community, and UpStart, spearheaded The Collaboratory, an annual network-weaving and skills-building event for Jewish social innovators connected to these organizations.

This year, we are proud to announce a new funding model that has generated a diverse funding pool for our recently selected 2014-2016 cohort of six fellows. In the past, the raising of funds and the selection of fellows were distinct operations. In 2009, we were generously awarded long-term funding, including five-year commitments from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation. This provided us the freedom and flexibility to refine our programmatic model and pilot a new funding model. Going forward, our program now allows philanthropic partners to advance their goals by funding particular fellows in their areas of interest.

We piloted this model in 2012 with two institutional partners, the AVI CHAI Foundation and the Ruderman Family Foundation, who together supported three fellows, Hyim Brandes of Online Jewish Academy, Sarah Blattner of Tamritz, and Elana Naftalin-Kelman of Rosh Pina. In the case of AVI CHAI, the foundation was looking to explore the use of new technologies to improve Jewish day school education. They were excited about the bold ideas of Blattner and her venture, Tamritz, an organization developing a national, digital badge-empowered learning network that would position the day school world at the leading edge of 21st century learning pedagogy.

Through the combination of AVI CHAI’s content knowledge and financial support and Joshua Venture Group’s expertise in leadership and venture development, AVI CHAI was able to explore a technological solution while Tamritz successfully launched its program and reached hundreds of students directly, and thousands of students indirectly through teacher professional development.

As for the Ruderman Family Foundation, they were looking to advance their mission of full inclusion of Jews with disabilities in Jewish life by effecting institutional change through the vehicle of social entrepreneurship. Through Joshua Venture Group’s selection process, Naftalin-Kelman, an experienced professional in her field with great leadership potential, emerged as the best fit. Her organization, Rosh Pina, provides a certification and training process for Jewish synagogues and institutions that want to become more inclusive of people of all abilities. The Ruderman Family Foundation succeeded in grooming additional leaders in this growing field and in piloting a certification model that is critical to their work. Meanwhile, Naftalin-Kelman has had tremendous success engaging synagogues, day schools, emerging community groups, and camps in her program.

These experiments worked so well that we decided to broaden the platform for the 2014 – 2016 cohort. The AVI CHAI Foundation again chose to develop a day school entrepreneur through the JVG cohort, and UJA-Federation of New York leveraged the fellowship to support two Day School Fellows focused on change in NYC area schools. The Dobkin Family Foundation continues to support women’s leadership and feminist principles through our Women’s Issue Fellow. Not only did we work with foundations to drive innovation in issue areas, but we also determined that the Midwest was lacking in JVG support and in intensive cultivation of entrepreneurs. Therefore, we worked with the Crown Family to support a Chicago Fellow as well as with the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation and the William Davidson Foundation to support a Detroit Fellow.

Over the next two years, we will continue working with our funding partners to ensure that the fellows they fund are receiving the training they need to scale their organizations and to support the funders’ investment priorities. This is a powerful model that has the potential to multiply the impact we are having on the Jewish world. Stay tuned.

Lisa Lepson is the Executive Director of Joshua Venture Group. In a recently recorded ELI Talk, Lisa demonstrates the unexpected Jewish virtue of patience, and its tie to game-changing innovations.