At the end of last year, as the Madoff scandal and the economic crisis rocked the Jewish philanthropic world, a sense of near panic erupted within the Jewish community. It turns out that the big revelation was not that we were suddenly faced with a drastic reduction of communal resources; it was that there was a whole sector of Jewish organizations demonstrating that we could, in fact, do more with less.
The past decade witnessed the growth of a new sector of organic, decentralized, flexible Jewish startup organizations offering creative programs and engagement strategies. Dubbed the “Innovation Ecosystem” in the Jumpstart 2009 research report, these lean organizations now play an important role in defining how a growing number of Jews from multiple generations shape their relationship to the Jewish community and their own Jewish identity. Increasingly, vanguard “legacy” organizations in the established Jewish communal sector have also reimagined themselves and the way they deliver their services to best satisfy the Jewish community’s evolving interests and needs.
Why should the community choose to invest in new projects or organizations instead of more established initiatives, especially when resources are scarce and novel approaches are perceived as risky? To understand the case for supporting innovation, one only has to look to the successful strategies that these organizations, both startups and established, use to engage their constituencies and to conduct their operations, and at the proven results of their lean approaches.
For startup organizations, efficiency and creativity are essential because of financial constraints. In their case, it does not matter if a program takes place at someone’s home or in a coffee shop; most important is the program itself and the people it brings together. Nearly one-fifth of the organizations in the Innovation Ecosystem are entirely volunteer run, and another fifth use volunteers for more than half of their programmatic work. Utilizing volunteers empowers participants to become more involved in the organization and often increases their commitment to the cause. By emphasizing personal and communal connections to Judaism rather than the quality of the venue, these organizations are able to spend less money per attendee and to create an environment that fosters long-term participation.
For established organizations, finding low-cost, innovative strategies for delivering their services can also have a big pay-off. In recent years, for example, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life has been moving to a model where instead of hiring a professional to engage college students, students are the ones engaged to work with their peers — each of whom then taps into a different network on campus, from artists to jocks. Hillel is finding that this costs less and is more effective.
By encouraging their members to develop new ideas within an established framework, these organizations also ensure their own long-term success by spurring a domino effect of creativity.
While many of these effective new approaches have been made possible by the creativity of the entrepreneurs and Jewish communal professionals who spearhead these projects, the emergence of this landscape can also be attributed to a new philanthropic approach to grant making. Since the late 1990s, funders have become increasingly interested in incorporating their business strategies into their charitable giving. As a result, there has been a greater emphasis on proactively investing in not-for-profits’ inputs, such as their leadership, organizational infrastructure and community engagement, rather than on reactively managing their outputs, which are often beyond anyone’s control.
The philanthropy of tomorrow will not be based on a top-down approach; it will be based on a two-way partnership between funder and grantee, grounded in the exchange of both money and ideas. In an age of reduced resources, this philanthropic-entrepreneurial partnership model of giving is key to creating a vibrant Jewish future.
Dana Raucher is the executive director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.