Social Capital Keeps Jewish Startup Sector Forging Ahead

Despite the economic downturn and its effect on Jewish philanthropies and nonprofits, the number of new Jewish non-profit organizations continues to rise dramatically, today reaching more than 600 initiatives serving 630,000 people across North America. In addition to money – nearly $200 million per year flows to this startup sector each year – a robust portfolio of education, leadership and organizational development programs is powering the innovation sector and its leaders – and in turn, broadening the reach of their startup initiatives.

These are the major findings of the 2010 Survey of New Jewish Initiatives in North America, a project of Jumpstart, The Natan Fund and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. The survey is intended to help current and potential funders and nonprofit leaders make data-driven decisions that will strengthen 21st-century Jewish life. The study and its accompanying recommendations were released today as The Jewish Innovation Economy: An Emerging Market for Knowledge and Social Capital (available for download).

The Jewish startup sector runs lean and burns hot with the twin fuels of knowledge and social capital. Long-term investment in Jewish education and leadership has created a workforce well prepared and highly motivated to shape its own communal destiny. New Jewish initiatives complement existing communal institutions and in many cases achieve results and impacts that extend those institutions’ core missions. These are not potential resources; they are current, sustainable, even renewable sources of communal energy.

The 2010 Survey focused on understanding the leaders of new Jewish initiatives, in addition to documenting key changes since the previous survey was conducted in November-December 2008. The grassroots energy of “do-it-yourself Judaism” comes at the same time that broad and deep philanthropic investment has sparked the creation and growth of intensive Jewish learning programs, service and travel experiences, and other leadership development fellowships.

Key findings include:

Most Jewish startup founders and leaders exhibit high levels of Jewish social capital, deploying it in ways that challenge familiar labels and categories.

  • New Jewish initiatives engage more than 9% of the North American Jewish population with less than 2% of the roughly $10 billion spent annually in the Jewish nonprofit sector. In 2009 alone, this sector represented a nearly $200 million economy, supported in part by approximately 170,000 individual charitable contributions..
  • Jewish startup founders and leaders are usually genuine Jewish “insiders” and heirs to the Jewish communal system of the 20th century. They are building eclectic Jewish lives, rejecting denominational labels even as they attend Jewish religious services and Sabbath dinners more frequently than their peers.
  • The Jewish startup sector appears to be somewhat more gender balanced than the Jewish nonprofit sector overall. At Jewish startups, 42% of senior staff and 41% of executive directors/CEOs are female.
  • Jewish incubators and capacity building programs increase the efficiency and reach of new Jewish initiatives. They also are well positioned to catalyze transnational organizational networks across the global Jewish community.

“This pioneering research study is insightful, valuable and significant,” observed sociologist Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. “As this innovative economy advances and expands, so too do the research efforts to map it, explore it, and comprehend it. As the authors themselves acknowledge, we must treat self-reported data with care, but this important investigation opens the way to further understanding and further research into this enormously complex and significant novel phenomenon in Jewish life.”

The study’s inclusion of Canada and Europe marked the first-ever transatlantic census of innovative and entrepreneurial Jewish ventures; the European key findings were released in October 2010 by Jumpstart, Pears Foundation and the ROI Community of Young Jewish Innovators.