The Jewish New Media Innovation Fund: One Year Later

by Rachel Levin, Josh Miller and Adam Simon

Back in 2010, when Facebook had but a meager 300 million users and the concepts of Google Plus and Pinterest were not yet on the horizon, there was a desire bubbling up within the Jewish community to capitalize on the new media and technological innovations happening across so many facets of our lives.

How could we channel all of these new platforms to strengthen innovation within the Jewish community? How could these tools enable Jewish communities spread all over the world to reach, teach, learn, create and affiliate in unprecedented ways?

With these questions in mind, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Jim Joseph Foundation and Righteous Persons Foundation joined together to design and unveil the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund. Our goals were simple: to create a collaborative funding experiment that would seed technological innovation to enhance Jewish life, learning, culture and community while also facilitating a process from which we and others interested in supporting this space could learn.

One year later, we are pleased to offer some reflections on the process and invite the broader community to join us as we continue the conversation about how to best invest in and promote the creative use of technology to advance Jewish life.

In creating the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund, we wanted to see if we could challenge individuals and organizations to develop creative applications of existing technology that would help people engage with our Jewish traditions and with each other.

Working with Lucy Bernholz and her team at Blueprint Research + Design (now Arabella Advisors), we issued an open call for applicants and developed a model similar to those used by the MacArthur Digital Media & Learning Contest and Knight News Challenge to select award recipients from more than 300 applicants. Receiving a total of $500,000 from the Fund, the projects ran the gamut from virtual communities and mobile applications to digital music platforms, liturgy translators and more.

As a starting point for reflection, we invite you to read Lucy Bernholz’s paper on the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund process and the state of new media innovation in the organized Jewish community. We also offer three key lessons below. These are not meant to look at the individual projects themselves – the awardees will be providing their own reflections here in eJewishPhilanthropy in the coming weeks – but rather to reflect on some of the successes and challenges we faced throughout this process.

1. There is a tremendous hunger to bring new media tools to Jewish spaces. It is clear from the enormous response to our call for proposals that our community recognizes the importance of technology. The 300-plus applicants came from eight countries and requested a total of about $18 million. Many put forth worthy ideas and compelling projects that did not make the cut for the Fund due to the specific criteria we prioritized, but we believe they would contribute to Jewish life and are still potentially deserving of Jewish communal investment. More than half of the Fund’s applicants agreed to have summaries of their ideas made public, and we will be sharing them on in the coming weeks.

That is the good news. The challenge is to tap fresh perspectives and a non-traditional applicant pool that could offer novel approaches for how Jewish life could be enhanced through social media. The Fund was set up so that for-profits, not-for-profits and individuals could apply, which was in itself a new way of approaching grantmaking for each of our foundations.

We found, however, that very few organizations and individuals beyond our foundations’ existing networks applied for funding, despite an aggressive marketing effort into secular technology communities. While we do not know the exact cause, it is clear that the Jewish community’s efforts to use technology effectively will benefit from tapping into new talent and creativity. One possible solution may be to work directly with the commercial technology and media communities on appropriate incentives, platforms and outreach to technology experts.

2. Funding is not the only reason the Jewish community is underutilizing technology. While lack of financial resources is among the key barriers, we discovered it is not the only one. In our search for imaginative projects, we saw a lot of enthusiasm, but we found that many Jewish organizations need help broadening their basic understanding of new media tools and technologies and, subsequently, how to best use their resources to leverage them. This kind of investment is about capacity building – connecting organizational leaders to the right people and training resources, and then giving them the time they need to learn, plan and implement new strategies.

While this was not the goal of the Fund, it did surface an opportunity for Jewish funders to help their grantees bring in experts to assess their current new media and technology capacity and provide them with the support they need to use the right mix of tools strategically and effectively.

As we move forward, we must also create opportunities to increase our communal knowledge around the use of digital media tools, to examine with greater sophistication the obstacles to improved innovation and to determine the most pressing needs to address. Under the leadership of Lisa Colton at Darim Online, we are seeing this start to happen with gatherings of Jewish professionals at conferences like the Nonprofit Technology Conference. Last year, more than 70 Jewish professionals joined the conversation and interest in this year’s gathering in San Francisco is even greater. We must also take advantage of the great opportunity these conferences provide to learn from, connect and share with our counterparts in the non-Jewish world.

3. There is a disconnect between those with the most innovative ideas and those with the aptitude to develop them. One of the greatest challenges in this project was that many of the organizations and individuals with the game-changing ideas lacked the capacity, even with additional funding, to bring projects to fruition. We selected recipients using a system that evaluated both the quality of the idea and the potential for success and implementation. Moving forward, we must explore how we can create support systems and linkages between the individuals with the ideas and the teams of designers and developers that have the skills and resources to turn them into reality.

While we are still exploring future plans for our collaboration, our foundations remain committed to building on what we have learned from this experiment. We believe that among the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund’s key contributions is the conversation it sparked within our foundations and with our grantees and partners about the opportunity for us to leverage technology and new media more effectively. It is critical that we all take responsibility for continuing the dialogue, and we hope you will share reactions, insights and perspectives based on what you have learned from your own experiments.

Ultimately, if we continue to take risks, to experiment and learn in this area, it will lead to innovations and collaborations that will ensure Jewish life, learning, community and culture are primed to thrive in the 21st century.

Read Innovating on Tradition: Reflections on the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund, by Lucy Bernholz and Conan Liu.

Rachel Levin is the Associate Director of the Righteous Persons Foundation. Josh Miller is a Senior Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation. Adam Simon is the Associate National Director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.