Joshua Venture Group, the newly re-launched fellowship that trains Jewish social entrepreneurs, announced its 2010-2012 cohort of eight fellows on Monday. Each of the Dual Investment Program fellows will receive $40,000 in “seed funding” per year over the course of a two-year period, as well as $20,000 in health benefits, in addition to individual coaching and organizational support.
Environmental and social justice organizations were the big winners, accounting for half the members of the cohort, including Zelig Golden of Wilderness Torah, a California-based center for “earth-based” Judaism and Nati Passow of The Jewish Farm School, as well as Ari Weiss of Uri L’Tzedek and Eli Winkelman, founder of Challah for Hunger. Alison Laichter, co-founder of The Jewish Meditation Center in Brooklyn, and Rachel Nussbaum of the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle, represent the thriving of new Jewish communities focused on spirituality and meaning. And Sarah Lefton’s G-dcast produces short, animated films that demystify the weekly Torah reading.
Several of the aforementioned fellows are household names — at least within the realm of Jewish social entrepreneurship. Jewish Farm School and Uri L’Tzedek have both been incubated here at Bikkurim, and Wilderness Torah and G-dcast have both received the support of UpStart Bay Area, in San Francisco. Lefton and Winkelman are both alumni of ROI, the global community of young Jewish innovators founded by Lynn Schusterman. And Nussbaum was named an Avi Chai fellow in 2009.
Zhenya Plechkina, a Ukrainian-born artist and teacher who immigrated to the United States in 1998, is the only JVGroup fellow whose project doesn’t have a Web site. She is entering the fellowship with just the idea for her future organization, Children’s Art Initiative, which aims to transform Jewish education among children in the Russian-Jewish community in South Brooklyn through a bimonthly Jewish children’s art magazine. She has received prior support in the form of a small grant from the Blueprint Fellowship, organized by the Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations. “We are creating a portfolio of organizations with different levels of risks attached to them,” says Lisa Lepson, JVGroup’s executive director.
These overlaps are not necessarily a bad thing, says Alan Cohen, chair of JVGroup’s board. “Support is not one-off; an organization needs to be nurtured through different stages of growth — just like people,” he says.
In its selection of fellows, JVGroup has positioned itself as primarily an advanced-stage funder of Jewish social entrepreneurship ventures.
“The way I see it, there’s a pipeline,” Lepson told The Jewish Week. “Programs like ROI, PresenTense and Bikkurim — all of which are shorter and come in at an early stage — serve as a pipeline for our role as a national organization that will help take them to the next level and to continue the investment that the community has already made in them.” When there’s no follow-up, Lepson says, “It’s really challenging to get a venture off the ground.”
In fact, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, which serves as the sole funder of ROI, is one of the key supporters of JVGroup. The organization is fully funded with $4 million for the next several years, which comes from the Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation, as well as The Stanford and Joan Alexander Foundation, The Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Akron Legacy and Endowment Fund. (While funders were involved in the reading of applications during the second stage of the selection process, they did not have a say in choosing the eight fellows, Lepson says).
Of the 131 applicants, 76 advanced to the second stage and were asked to submit a fuller proposal. These proposals were read by an army of outside experts composed of Jewish professionals in the funding, academic, capacity building and leadership development fields, as well as alumni of JVGroup and other stakeholders. “Each application was read by at least three and up to five of these outside readers,” says Lepson. JVGroup provided a summary of this feedback to help applicants who weren’t chosen refine their ideas and create a better pitch when approaching other funders.
A team of nine people, comprised of board members, staff, and experts in the fields of organizational development and human capital, interviewed the 18 finalists in New York. The approach was innovative, Cohen says. “Instead of creating a big table with lots of people around it and everyone tossing questions at the finalist, we broke into three groups,” he says. One group focused on the applicant’s leadership qualities, the second on the impact the idea could yield, and the third asked detailed questions about the venture itself. “This allowed us to really focus on the specific competencies we were interested in,” Cohen says.
Also important to the selection committee was that the fellows could play well with others, since the cohort experience is a crucial component of the fellowship. “We haven’t all met yet, but the idea is that we will be on this adventure together, supporting each other’s work and visions, and revolutionizing the Jewish world,” says Laichter.
“One thing we were looking for was to create a cohort that represented the depth and breadth of the Jewish community,” Lepson says. The eight fellows cover a lot of ground across the age and observance continuums, as well as different issue areas, Cohen says. “You could live in Joshua Venture. The group itself is a community. We think it reflects larger Jewish communities out there.”
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