Fund Innovation, Wherever Its Found

Fund Innovation, Wherever Its Found

Every December, the countdown to the end of the year reliably includes several dozen “best of the year” lists, hundreds of “holiday” shopping deals, the all-important kiss at midnight, and, for the philanthropic community, a frenzy of last-minute check-writing. The end of 2009 was no different. In 2010, I would like to make a bold suggestion: start now on your giving plan for 2010. 
Following Thanksgiving, donors attempt to conduct a year’s worth of measured, strategic philanthropy in less than six weeks. The questions facing any strategic donor cannot be condensed into such a short period of time.
Among the critical questions that many Jewish donors considered in December was whether to support traditional Jewish organizations, doing basic needs work, or fund an emerging network of younger, smaller, innovative Jewish nonprofits seeking to engage a new generation of Jews in Jewish life. As Gary Rosenblatt highlighted in his column, “The Push-And-Pull Of Jewish Philanthropy” (Nov. 20), the tension between these camps is one of the American Jewish world’s most fascinating dynamics.

As the director of the Slingshot Fund, an organization that identifies, promotes and funds innovative Jewish organizations large and small, I have been thrilled to see many successful collaborations between federations and innovative nonprofits, and yet the undercurrent of tension persists. This is not the time for it. 
From 2007 to 2008, giving, adjusted for inflation, dropped an estimated 2 percent. While the final numbers aren’t in yet for 2009, there are indications that giving totals will be off by 15 to 20 percent from foundations alone, representing a $7 billion decline, not even counting a potential decrease in giving from individual donors. This means that both traditional and innovative nonprofits will spend the first part of 2010 struggling to maintain their programs and trying to figure out how to continue to serve their constituents.
The friction in Jewish giving is helping neither side, and it is made far worse by two commonly held misconceptions: First, that innovation can only exist at start-ups, and second, that donors must choose which “team” to give to.
The misconception that innovative funders can only value the “new” or the untested is one that despite all evidence to the contrary is proving hard to shake. Even though Slingshot promotes a number of start-ups, we also believe that in order to remain relevant to a changing Jewish community, conventional institutions must innovate. For example, launched in 1928, Jewish Family Services of Metropolitan Detroit was facing a crisis in 2004 as unemployment in Michigan skyrocketed, and thousands of members of the Jewish community suddenly found themselves without health insurance.
JFS launched Project Chessed, a comprehensive network of formalized health care that has created a database of over 600 Jewish physicians in the Detroit area who have provided over $2 million in donated services to Jewish clients in their private medical offices. This is but one example showing that some of the most innovative and inspirational projects in Jewish life are happening at “conventional” institutions.
As you think about your giving in 2010, I encourage you to move beyond the philanthropic choice of either/or. In 2010, in addition to supporting the “heavy lifting” done by the federations, including clothing, housing, and feeding the needy members of our community, donors should make room in their portfolio for innovation that has a resonance with them.

Slingshot promotes the work of 50 organizations using innovation to resonate with Jewish life in North America, and within that community, and the larger world of Jewish innovation, there is something for everyone. Among the many sectors represented, innovation has taken root in education, through The Curriculum Initiative and Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation, and in healthcare, with organizations like the Jewish Genetic Disease Consortium and the above-mentioned Project Chessed.
2009 is over, and the flurry of check writing has ceased for the moment. Take this opportunity to start thinking strategically about this year’s philanthropy. Use 2010 as an opportunity to not only support established institutions, but also to make room in your portfolio for innovative organizations, emerging leaders, riskier start-ups, and organizations speaking to the needs of next-generation Jewish life. I’m sure that 2010 will end with best-of lists, holiday deals, and a kiss at midnight, but let’s take the opportunity a new year presents us to start our strategic thinking now, and leave the last-minute check writing behind. n
Will Schneider is director of The Slingshot Fund.

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