The Mash Up: Moving Beyond the Legacy vs. Startup Bifurcation

by Maya Bernstein, David Bryfman, Leora Isaacs, Aliza Kline, Bill Robinson, Toby Rubin and Jonathan Woocher

The 2012 General Assembly is already a few weeks behind us, but many of the pressing issues raised in Baltimore continue to vex the Jewish community. Yet we believe we made an important start in understanding some of the questions that have the potential to drive significant change across the landscape of Jewish organizational life. Over 120 people attended the session entitled “Legacy Versus Innovation: A False Dichotomy.” The interactive session presented multiple perspectives from the Jewish communal landscape. Three speakers from very different organizations – a start-up, a large federation, and a facilitator of nonprofit innovation and philanthropy – shared their experiences within the challenges and opportunities of connecting legacy institutions with emerging start-ups. The real work of the session began as the diverse constituents represented at each table used a generative, “yes, and” methodology, modeled to create an environment of acceptance and creativity, to generate new ideas for bridging emerging and legacy institutions.

The session clarified a few important issues for us:

1. Terminology matters.
Labels are laden with values, assumptions and often baggage. “Legacy” can imply “staid.” Organizations that have been around for many decades are of course, more than capable of being creative and changing with the times, but often do so at a more gradual pace. It is common for established organizations to experiment with innovation in tandem with running a tried and tested array of programs. “Innovative startup” is often associated with young, inexperienced but passionate leaders scrambling to raise money in order to express a creative new approach to Jewish life. This too is not necessarily the case. The founders of Jewish start-ups span a range of ages. Sometimes what they offer is truly innovative, but other times, what is “new” may actually be quite traditional in approach. In reality, both types of organizations are seeking ways to meaningfully engage people – and are often working within the same ecosystem of funders, constituents and communal institutions. It makes sense then for us to view and talk about our community as one inter-connected system. One which supports the strengthening of core programs, the exploration of adjacent potential innovations, and the nurturing of potentially transformational ones, all for the shared mission of fostering thriving Jewish life.

2. Creativity is democratic.
New approaches to ongoing challenges can be generated by anyone, anytime, as long as the setting provides an opportunity to do so. At recent GAs we have mounted Jewish Futures Conferences to inspire new ways of thinking with an eclectic group of people. This session was crafted in the same manner, by identifying a problem statement and then creating the opportunity for generative work. The question, “How might we better tap into the creativity and resources of our entire community in order to maximize our collective impact?” framed the session. Presenters Jonah Halper, founder of Altruicity, “legacy organization” representative, Rabbi Deborah Joselow from UJA-Federation of NY, and a “start up” representative, Ana Fuchs from Jewish Kids Groups, each offered candid observations and unique suggestions. Maya Bernstein of UpStart Bay Area challenged and energized the room by facilitating a brainstorming session. In a brief period of time, each table of 10 created several dozen new ideas for how startups and legacy organizations might work together. That’s a lot of ideas.

Through our own combination of the old and the new (notecards and Twitter), we managed to capture a large number of these. Several ideas floated to the top, either because they were repeated or because they struck us as compelling, new, feasible, or just totally “out of the box.” Here they are, (in no particular order):

  1. Create spaces in which innovators can meet in “hub type” environments in buildings that are largely empty during certain times of the day (e.g., synagogues that are empty between 9am-3pm).
  2. Create a mentoring program of “alumni” of entrepreneurial enterprises to advise new upstarts and “legacy” organizations’ staff.
  3. Develop a digital platform for telling the stories of collaborations and sharing “what else is happening” among legacy and startup organizations.
  4. Since so many startups and legacies are already at the GA, hold lengthier sessions, possibly an all night “mashup” to explore ways of working together.
  5. Hold a contest to foster creative thinking about the challenges, including making videos for solutions, culminating in a summit of new ideas.
  6. Develop mindsets and support mechanisms that enable mature startups to be “absorbed” into legacy institutions.
  7. Develop fellowships, training leaders of legacy institutions to be intrapreneurs.

3. “Mash up” the voices to get better results.
When faced with a challenge, engaging diverse people and perspectives, and involving them in a generative “yes, and” process, will yield more creative results. The seven ideas listed above (along with the hundreds of others developed during the 15 minute brainstorming session) were generated by a wide spectrum of people with very different ways of expressing their commitment to Jewish life, most of whom were meeting for the first time. The diversity of their backgrounds and opinions was critical to the relevancy and creativity of their ideas.

Developing and leading this session was collaborative too. The Jewish Education Project, JESNA, and UpStart Bay Area developed trust, planned together and shared the stage. Now, our goal is to learn as much as we can, share the outcomes with you and figure out how. Together, we can serve as a catalyst for changing the way the community as a whole can collaborate more effectively respond to the challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish community.

We have all been witness to the explosion of startups in the Jewish world in the last decade. After an energetic burst onto the scene, many of the startups struggle to scale up, and in some cases survive. Many legacy organizations are struggling to maintain relevance and impact in the Jewish world today. The distinctions among these organizations are by no means as clear as they might first appear to be. Dichotomizing “legacies” and “start ups” is destructive; it quells rather than inspires new thinking and ways of working, perhaps even, collaborating. Instead, let’s sit together, as we did at this session, to inspire creative ideas that bridge the divide and take the most promising of them further in order to create a healthier, more sustainable and smarter Jewish community.