We’re Interested in Applying Jewish Wisdom, so Why Fund Innovation?

By Dara Weinerman Steinberg and Jonathan Woocher

In 2013, when we were planning our strategy and preparing to launch Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, we sat down to consider whether and how our longstanding interest and involvement in the Jewish Innovation sector fit with our refined strategic focus on supporting endeavors to cultivate, transmit and apply Jewish wisdom and sensibilities to help Jews and others live better lives and shape a better world.

Our decision was that supporting innovation continues to be relevant.

We are interested in the innovation sector because so many of the programs, entrepreneurs and organizations counted as part of that sector are seeking – and finding – creative ways to use Jewish teaching and practice to enrich people’s lives in ways that are deeply meaningful.

Our interest in innovation, therefore, has not wavered; however our focus has shifted a bit: We are directing more of our resources into strengthening the infra-structure of organizations that support and mentor the front-line innovators. Within this framework, we are emphasizing two objectives in particular: first, helping these organizations work together more collaboratively to meet some of the new challenges facing the Jewish innovation sector – especially that of helping ventures grow toward sustainability and greater impact; and second, assisting some of these support organizations to help their beneficiaries engage more deeply with Jewish wisdom in the course of their work.

We still support directly a healthy sampling of organizations that were started within the last twenty years. And, we still believe in and value the fellowship and incubation programs that have nurtured many of these organizations, projects, and entrepreneurial leaders as start-ups.

But, we recognize that the landscape of innovation has changed somewhat. As our early investments and those of others in innovation have matured and paid clear dividends, we now feel a responsibility to help that sector thrive as it moves into and (hopefully) through its “adolescence” toward “adulthood.” Although the flow of new ventures continues, there are now dozens of former start-ups that need support to move beyond that stage and to become integral parts of the larger Jewish communal ecosystem (whether as independent organizations or in other forms). This has challenged both funders and support organizations like Joshua Venture Group, Upstart, PresenTense, Bikkurim, ROI and others to approach their roles differently.

The creation of the Collaboratory, bringing together the five organizations named above, which our foundation has helped to support, is an important new development in two respects: first, in the collaboration itself; and second, in the focus of their joint efforts on serving alumni of their respective programs who are transitioning or seeking to transition into a “second stage.”

We have decided as a foundation that these kinds of efforts will increasingly be a focus for us. This includes support for Joshua Venture Group to strengthen its alumni programming and to serve as a “backbone” organization for the Collaboratory. It also includes a grant that enabled the Collaboratory organizations to have additional time to meet as colleagues to discuss the sector and their own operations, providing them with the space to step back from the work they were doing to look at the sector holistically so they can better support the organizations they have nurtured.

Our second objective is to help the innovation sector become even more intentional and successful in using its inventive thinking and considerable talents to connect Jews to Jewish wisdom and sensibilities. We believe that there are opportunities across the spectrum of areas that innovators are focusing on – not just Jewish education, but arts and culture, service and social justice, and building a more engaging and inclusive community – to apply a “Jewish lens” that enriches the work being done. Here too, we believe that the support organizations can play a key role. So, we’ve made grants to support Upstart and PresenTense, helping them help the innovators they work with reflect on and deepen the Jewish dimensions of their activities.

When the innovation sector is strong – and here we mean robust in both organizational development and integration of Jewish wisdom – the benefits accrue exponentially. It is a virtuous circle; its very existence helps spur innovators because they know there is such a thing as “Jewish innovation.” Its successes, collaborations, and even its “failures” result in awareness, learning being shared, and the movement of talent between start-up organizations and established Jewish organizations.

virtuous circle figureWhen innovation becomes a mindset that more people utilize in their work, it makes for stronger programs, more like-minded potential collaborators (including homes for promising ideas that need organizational infrastructure), and more experiments that yield further learning about promising practices.

As a foundation we’ve always had an appetite for smart risks (which we plan to discuss in an upcoming blog post on Nachshon, the inspiration for our approach). By supporting the infrastructure for innovation we can leverage both our own support for individual innovative organizations and the investments that other funders are making (not to mention those of the innovators themselves).

Innovation will always be risky. But, a strong support structure can improve the odds of success. And with that success, we believe, will come more encompassing, engaging, and inspiring Jewish life – more fulfilled individuals, a stronger community, and a better world.

Dara Weinerman Steinberg is Executive Director and Dr. Jonathan Woocher is President of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.