Joshua Venture: Gone for Good, or Ready for a Fresh Start?

While Supporters Try To Figure Out Exactly What Went Wrong, Some Hope To Relaunch the Organization

By Jennifer Siegel

Published November 11, 2005, issue of November 11, 2005.
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After helping to launch some of the Jewish world’s most buzzed-about fledgling organizations in recent years, Joshua Venture closed its doors last spring after only five years of operation. As supporters evaluate exactly what went wrong, some of the group’s major funders have already moved on to new projects. Nonetheless, there is still a chance that the Joshua Venture could be relaunched in a revamped format soon.

Officially called Joshua Venture: A Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurs, the organization funded initiatives that quickly gained widespread attention and praise, ranging from Heeb magazine to a support group for young breast cancer patients. But the project shuttered its doors in March after an operating deficit was discovered and general fund-raising efforts floundered. Joshua Venture currently lacks a professional staff and a board of directors. Still, it may not be gone for good: Supporters optimistically refer to the current hiatus as a “midcourse correction,” and one of the group’s smaller funders hopes to raise new money to restart the program.

Joshua Venture’s sudden rise and fall have generated considerable notice in Jewish philanthropic circles. The San Francisco-based organization, founded in 2000 during the height of the dot-com boom, was well known for its programmatic success and for ushering in several concurrent trends in Jewish philanthropy: an increased focus on young people’s ideas; the adoption of the entrepreneurial zeitgeist found at high-tech startups and the increasing tendency of large foundations to spearhead their own programs.

“There was a wave of venture philanthropy going around” in the organization’s early years, said Brian Gaines, who served as Joshua Venture’s executive director until the spring of 2004. “We were going to listen to the market, and if the market said, ‘This is what we want,’ then the projects had to survive on that. It wasn’t going to be about, ‘Well, you know, so-and-so, the head of this federation, thinks we should have X.’”

From the beginning, Joshua Venture had big ideas and big supporters. Three major foundations created the organization: the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Walter & Elise Haas Fund — family foundations that recently had expanded their programs to include Jewish life — as well as Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation. Three young female program officers at the foundations had conducted a listening tour among young Jewish activists and concluded that younger Jews were being overlooked by philanthropists.

“We weren’t seeing enough advancement in a progressive agenda in what we had in our existing pool,” said Robyn Lieberman, the Joshua Venture founder who worked for the Haas Fund. “In my thinking, it was a very strategic investment to put [money] into leadership development… so that Haas would have more things to fund that met its guidelines.”

A professional staff was hired, a board of directors selected and the most promising social entrepreneurs given fellowships that included $30,000 of funding for two years, in addition to training and mentorship — all with the hope of creating new nonprofits that ultimately would stand on their own.

That endeavor was a success: The first cohort of Joshua Venture, which ran from 2001 to 2003, included Heeb magazine, a feminist beit midrash and a training program for young Jewish filmmakers; the 2003-2005 cohort included the JDub Records label, which has released the music of Matisyahu, a Hasidic reggae performer featured on MTV. Out of the 16 projects funded by Joshua Venture, 14 still exist. They have an average of four paid staff members and annual budgets of between $80,000 and $500,000.

(In the wake of the Joshua Venture’s achievements, other programs focusing on young Jews’ initiatives also have launched in recent years, including Bikkurim, a program that provides office space and technical help for Jewish startups in New York City, and Reboot, an informal network of artistic Jews that so far has spawned a record label and a literary journal.)

Despite its programmatic success, Joshua Venture suffered from internal problems. First there were a number of staffing changes. Both Robyn Lieberman of Haas and Rachel Cowan of the Cummings Foundation had left their respective foundations by late 2003, and both foundations subsequently shifted their emphasis to Jewish social justice work. Gaines left in the spring of 2004. Around that time, Joshua Venture incorporated officially as a nonprofit. Soon after, a $200,000 deficit dating from 2002 was discovered. The initial funders, which already had been looking for Joshua Venture to become less reliant on their support, realized that the fund-raising picture was worse than previously thought. And although they came up with roughly $300,000 to cover the deficit and hire a consultant, the extent of their future commitment was uncertain.

Marcella Kanfer Rolnick, the co-chair of the Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation who sat on the Joshua Venture board, is now spearheading the drive to revive the program. She believes the Joshua Venture would have continued easily if not for the deficit: “We would have had to make some major changes in the way the organization was governed and managed, and purge the bad practices that got us into trouble” she said in an interview with the Forward. “[But] we would have been able to move forward.”

Others, including the consultant hired to do a postmortem on the program, believe the real issues were more structural. Because Joshua Venture’s founders were professionals who worked for the foundations that funded the program, ownership of and ultimate responsibility for the organization were murky.

“Joshua Venture was an entrepreneurial venture without an entrepreneur,” Lieberman said. “The problem with having program officers who are not the funders themselves, but work for funders starting things — and this is my big lesson — is that professionals leave their jobs, and their loyalties are divided between those organizations and their employers.”

At the outset, according to the consultant’s report, Joshua Venture offered board seats to foundations willing to pledge a minimum of $100,000 per year for three years. Ultimately these included the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Haas Fund and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, as well as the Cummings Foundation, which chose not to take a seat. While several other funders — including the Nash Family Foundation, the Charles H. Revson Foundation and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund — also contributed significant amounts, Lieberman said the arrangement discouraged them from taking ownership.

“You had three or four major foundations that took ownership of Joshua Venture, and I think that was very foreboding for a lot of other funders to come in, thinking that this was their baby,” said Gaines.

By 2003, Righteous Persons and the Bronfman Philanthropies committed to a new venture: the Reboot program, which aims to engage young and artistically inclined Jews. Reboot was spearheaded by Righteous Persons’ Rachel Levin and Bronfman’s Roger Bennett, and has also seen turnover in the executive director position.

According to Levin, the major funders always had hoped that Joshua Venture would develop its own dedicated leadership and new funding sources. Levin said that after Joshua Venture’s financial problems came to light in 2004, the major funders were disappointed that the organization still seemed so dependent on the initial funders.

“The question was who was going to run it if you don’t have an executive director and you have a board that’s saying, ‘We don’t really want to step up and make this happen,’ or, ‘We can’t and this is more than we bargained for,’” Levin said. “Is it really worth the funders coming in and putting in the money, when we’re just sort of back to where we started?”

But beyond the question of who was occupying the driver’s seat, the polyglot nature of Joshua Venture also made it difficult to attract outside funding. The local, discrete nature of many of the projects often matched with certain foundations that work on a specific issue or geographic area, but Joshua Venture was asking them to support the program as a whole.

“I’d go to a funder and say, ‘Hey, listen, will you fund this program?’ and they’d say, ‘Well I don’t like this program, I don’t like that program, but I like this, this and this,’” Gaines recalled. “Well, you know, it’s a package.”

Lieberman added that some local foundations were reluctant to fund fellows that they did not have a hand in choosing.

Whatever the problems were that hobbled Joshua Venture, there is still hope that it will reorganize and rise again to continue its mission. Kanfer Rolnick is currently exploring various alternative funding schemes, among other issues, and plans to convene a major stakeholders’ meeting in early 2006. The goal is a second chance for the Joshua Venture.

“[We learned] a painful lesson, but I don’t think we should overblow the negative,” Kanfer Rolnick said. “It was an opportunity to learn, and we’re going to do it better this time.”

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