Wednesday, December 10, 2008

More social innovation, this time Jewish

Over on Huffington Post there is a great post about innovation in times of recession. It focuses on opportunities for social innovation in the Jewish community, but only a little of what it has to offer are specific to that community. Here are the authors' three identified opportunities:

"First, we have to stop funding projects simply because they've been funded before. ... There's probably a cash-starved startup that has figured out a way to do the same thing faster, cheaper, and with greater success.

Second, while we identify what doesn't work, let's take advantage of what does. This means a paradigm shift in the nonprofit economy: applying the latest technology and best practices to everything from operations and human resources to program delivery and communication. ... it means taking advantage of already existing social networks to scale up and out, instead of relying on formal inter-organizational alliances that may not have kept up with current needs. In the Jewish community, it means changing our measure of success from being Jewish to doing Jewish, from being righteous to doing justice.

Third, we have to reorient philanthropy -- especially Jewish community philanthropy -- to incorporate a steady commitment to future thinking and R&D. ....

In short, the recession presents an unparalleled opportunity to cast a critical eye on all of our current practices."

Now, some of these are clearly controversial. While funding something just because you've funded it before may not be the best approach, NOT funding something just because you've funded it before is DEFINITELY not the answer. This part of the article may be specific to organized Jewish philanthropy in the U.S. - which has long been dominated by federated and community foundations and is actively struggling with alternative forms of giving. The discussion/debate about community giving institutions and other giving structures is not unique to Jews, but it is a large concern within the community.* In another opinion piece on the same topic other authers offered these three suggestions on how to address the problem:
"First: In the next three years, Jewish foundations and significant individual Jewish funders should act as modern governments do in times of significant contraction — increase their expenditures, with the intention of returning to normal levels of giving when the economy grows again. ...Once the economy shows signs of renewed growth, foundations can reduce their proportion of funding and return to encouraging non-profits to diversify their funding sources and to reach out to new donors.

Secondly, foundations, federations and funders should provide additional support to young, fast-growing organizations. No single organization in this cohort is doing anything that we couldn’t live without. But together, they are remaking the Jewish world. ...

Similarly, there is an urgent need for significant Jewish funders to create new funding mechanisms to ensure funding for the “innovation sector” over the next two to three years. Otherwise, that sector will risk facing irreparable damage. ...

Our third argument is addressed to the nonprofits themselves. Asking funders to step up in extraordinary ways obligates the recipients to take extraordinary measures to be as efficient and effective as they can possibly be. If the young non-profits were private sector companies, we’d see a wave of consolidation in this young and fragmented market sector. The economic situation provides an opportunity for truly innovative organizations to maximize impact while minimizing costs. Young nonprofits need to collaborate more effectively, openly and generously. They need to share space, knowledge, software, hardware, people, and even markets. And where there are opportunities for mergers, they need to pursue them."
What is the answer? I think we'll find it by realizing we need to look at services, outcomes, and those served - and not just at the organizations we know. And if you are interested in serving underserved or unserved groups, or groups that have not been served well, I think it behooves you to consider what and how and why that group has not been well served and then decide how, and with whom, to address those needs. It is thinking like this, as well as efforts such as everywun, good2gether, ammado, and socialactions that have led to me to cast a watchful eye on the role of "actions" as much as "organizations."

The HuffPo authors are primarily concerned that tight economic times will drive more dollars to big established organizations and away from scrappy grassroots organizations. This seems to be the same recognition that is driving predictions of declining numbers of nonprofits (see Paul Light's predictions and others). But I think any decline in numbers will be paralleled by increases in social enterprises - either separate from or within nonprofits.

*And no, I don't think there is anything like a single Jewish community, in the U.S. or anywhere else. Full Disclosure: I serve on the board of UpStart, an organization that supports Jewish social startups. Through that relationship I have spoken with the JumpStart leadership.


Christine Egger said...

Great post, Lucy. Lots of good additions to the conversation here.


Anonymous said...

Hey Lucy,

Thanks so much for writing about the Everywun Campaign. We're trying to make it possible for everyone in the world to support the causes that they care about, and we know that it can only happen when people like you take the time to spread the word.

To show our gratitude we'd like to send you a little gift in the mail. If you can email me your mailing address at, I'm excited to get that out to you. Again, thanks for your support!