by Bob Goldfarb
Jumpstart’s Survey of New Jewish Organizations, released last week, promises to start a lot of conversations. There are no stunning surprises in the key findings or the full study. They point to the diversity of these organizations, their generally small size, financial fragility, and desire to collaborate and save money. What’s interesting is the questions they suggest for further study.
Let’s start by taking a closer look at what’s being measured. Is it new organizations, or innovation among Jewish nonprofits? Jumpstart, which was commissioned to undertake the study by the Natan Fund and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, did an amazing job in surveying hundreds of organizations in December, digesting the data, and producing a report last week. But that understandably required some simplification, including treating “startup” and “innovation” as more or less the same thing. However, plenty of innovation happens in organizations that have been around for a long time, and new organizations can be unimaginative or derivative in their work. If we care specifically about nurturing new programs, services and mechanisms, as opposed to encouraging startups generally, the next iteration of research might look more closely at what constitutes real innovation and particularly how it correlates with financial success. It might also look at ways that old organizations have successfully reinvented their programs and fostered innovation from within. Case studies can be especially useful in capturing both.
Secondly, the study found that, with a few conspicuous exceptions, these nonprofits are small: their mean budget size is $150,000. In his presentation in Los Angeles, Shawn Landres of Jumpstart saw this as an example of the “long tail” phenomenon described by Chris Anderson in his book of the same name. But is it? The classic case of Anderson’s “long tail” is Amazon.com’s book business. A significant amount of their revenue comes from sales of just a few units each of a large number of special-interest titles. By contrast, your local bookstore mostly stocks high turnover titles because that’s the best use of their very limited physical space. Amazon was able to change the game because, unlike stores in the real world, online retailers effectively have infinite shelf space. The “long tail,” in other words, is a new economic phenomenon that was not possible before the Internet.
Is that the case with new Jewish organizations? Or are there simply a great many small organizations that show up as a long tail on a graph, without any special economic efficiencies resulting from new media? In the music industry there has always been a huge number of independent vendors of services – i.e., musicians – of whom only a few earn a lot of money. That’s not a “long tail,” just a field where there are only few financial winners. It’s important to know which template actually fits new Jewish nonprofits, because that will influence strategic decisions by their managers and funders.
The last set of the study’s key findings concerns strategic issues for startups: getting sector-wide support, seeking collaborations, lowering operating costs by sharing resources. Future research ought to bear in mind that a nonprofit, as it makes strategic decisions, is not a unitary actor. In other words, an organization doesn’t have one single opinion; it is likely have a diversity of views among management, staff, lay leadership, and public constituencies. It’s entirely possible, for example, the managers of two nonprofits will want to merge some of their operations, while the lay leadership of the respective organizations may resist such a scenario, or vice versa. Future research ought to probe the views of multiple actors within organizations to paint a more detailed picture, particularly as they relate to lay leadership. Understanding those internal dynamics is crucial in order for startups and innovators to thrive amid today’s economic challenges.
Meanwhile, The Natan Fund, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, and Jumpstart are to be congratulated for their sustained interest in the Jewish innovation sector and for asking a lot of important questions.
Bob Goldfarb, a Harvard MBA, conducted a research study for the National Endowment for the Arts in 2005. He is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, based in Jerusalem and Los Angeles, and publisher of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.