Why We Made It: Successful Incubation

By Will Schneider

Slingshot was launched ten years ago as an annual resource guide for funders in their 20s and 30s to explore innovative Jewish life, and has since become an important center of gravity for the Jewish innovation space. Originally, Slingshot existed as a core project of 21/64, the nonprofit next generation and multigenerational consulting practice incubated at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies’ (ACBP). ACBP planned to complete their financial spend-down and cease operations by 2016, so it became necessary to launch Slingshot as an independent entity as well.

I was hired as Slingshot’s first full time staff person, with the mission of wrapping my arms around the Slingshot project and its stakeholders, and building a sustainable independent organization. While Slingshot was a beloved brand by the time I joined the team, success wasn’t pre-determined. Just weeks before the publication of the 10th annual edition of the national guide, I have been reflecting on why we “made it.”

The following are some lessons learned and advice for any project attempting to incubate out, or spin off as an independent entity from its parent organization or foundation:

  1. Build a Long horizon – Talk about what you want to see 5 or 6 years out, not just later this year. ACBP helped me frame out a six-year incubation plan, and shared their plans for financial and logistical support for each step along the way. Up front this included office space, executive coaching, financial support, and generous in-kind donations of staff time as needed. As time went on we slowly built relationships with other funders, obtained office space of our own, and most importantly talked with our new partners and funders about our 2014 expansion plans – in 2011 and 2012.
  2. Diversify your support from the start – Possibly the most prescient thing done for Slingshot’s successful incubation occurred before I ever got the job – the gift to hire Slingshot’s first staff person didn’t come from ACBP, but rather from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Foundation in San Francisco. Right off the bat, I was able to tell partners that ACBP was not my lone funder, but in fact a well-respected foundation is making our incubation possible.
  3. Balance the board’s authority and responsibility to ensure ownership – The idea for Slingshot was originally developed by funders in their 20s and 30s who were participating in 21/64’s Grand Street Network. Not only did they express the original need, but they also developed the core programs including the Slingshot Guide and Fund. As Slingshot grew within ACBP, the foundation staff made sure that Grand Street members had a chance to take responsibility for the direction of Slingshot’s growth and the authority to make decisions. Projects often fail when the authority/responsibility balance is off – which often happens with younger lay leaders. By the time I took over I had a dozen advisory board members who deeply understood Slingshot’s programs and felt strong ownership over the organization that they were empowered to make decisions for. That group immediately stepped up to become Slingshot’s owners when ACBP stepped back. Six years later, only a few members of the original group remain, but the balance of responsibility and authority that ACBP and 21/64 established, has stayed the same.
  4. Keep your budget small and build cash on hand – From 2009-2011, Slingshot’s operating budget never exceeded $200,000. While this meant we had to put off certain projects we were excited about, for three years we were in-the-black. At a board meeting in October of 2011, the board felt comfortable pulling the trigger on our second hire and starting Slingshot’s expansion because we had a healthy balance sheet. While this sometimes lead to difficult conversations with funders seeking metrics that we couldn’t afford, the small budget meant we could sequence those funders until future years when their support was even more valuable, and when we were better able to deliver that data.
  5. Focus on mission, avoid scope creep – Credit goes to Slingshot’s board for always keeping a firm grasp on Slingshot’s core business. It was another key factor in ensuring Slingshot didn’t chase funding and become broad but shallow. As a more mature organization we have been able to expand into new projects like our local initiatives and programmatic supplements to the Slingshot Guide, but we would not have taken on those projects in our earlier years.
  6. Brand building is a key step – Often charismatic leaders are the main motivation for early support from funders. Our charismatic founder was actually a whole foundation and its powerful staff. Like most other start-ups, our early ability to get meetings with funders and partners was because of our founder. As we incubated, we made an effort to further build Slingshot’s brand name while putting systems in place that would allow for future leadership changes. At times this means my board, staff, and I personally take a backseat to the Slingshot brand, but it ensures that our funders are able to support the mission and not just the leadership. Individually we have been able to carve out our own professional development opportunities without outshining Slingshot. From a day-to-day perspective, Slingshot’s powerful brand allowed us to grow beyond my day-to-day ability to touch everything, and ensures long-term funder commitment to the project.
  7. Make great hires. We’ve often seen organizations go wrong by hiring only versions of the Executive Director with succession planning in mind. While everyone at Slingshot must be able to question conventional wisdom and run successful projects, we put together a staff with a variety of professional backgrounds so that we can divide and conquer the work based on our experience. Diverse backgrounds and transparent communications have built our high achieving team.
  8. Bonus: Choose a great name. Slingshot was named during an era of great naming done at ACBP. Reboot, Birthright Israel, 21/64, Grand Street and others. A memorable name that suggests the right emotion and intention helped Slingshot create our brand and stick in people’s memories.

Special thanks to Andrea Bronfman z’l, Charles Bronfman, Jeff Solomon, Sharna Goldseker, and the many others at ACBP who had a vision for Slingshot and stood by us as we got on our feet. Slingshot completed its incubation in 2014 by registering Slingshot Fund, Inc. in New York State. However, nothing is complete. Slingshot was built to last and has already begun to activate its strategy for the next five years. At the end of October of 2014 we will publish the 10th edition of Slingshot, and roll out the next elements in our developing local approach, designed to introduce the Jewish community to projects in their hometown and interest areas. This year Slingshot will publish editions that focus on the Midwest, Washington, DC, and programs that impact women and girls. As the Executive Director guiding incubation I can share that it felt good to put a period on the end of the incubation sentence. However, when the new guides hit your desks you will see they are not about looking back at what we’ve accomplished, but rather an optimistic look at what’s to come in the Jewish community.

Will Schneider is the Executive Director of Slingshot. Slingshot ’14-’15, the 10th edition of Slingshot’s guide to Jewish innovation, will be published in late October 2014, visit here to order your free copy of the guide: www.slingshotfund.org/order