Risk vs. Reward: Can We Afford to Fund Young People’s Innovations?

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September 1, 2000
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Brian Gaines

Can young innovators make a difference in today’s Jewish community? Is the Jewish com-munity ready for such innovation? Is the community ready to risk its resources to find out? It appears more and more that today’s Jewish leaders are increasingly answering these questions with an emphatic “yes!” Here’s why.

Twenty- and thirty-year-old American Jews are products of a society dramatically different from that of earlier generations. We came of age in a technologically sophisticated world, grew up among nontraditional families, and yearn for communal and often spiritual connections. No longer faced with the same societal barriers and prejudices as our predecessors and living in an age of diversity and identity politics, we have the choice to view “Jewish” as one of several adjectives describing who we are.

This is not to say that there has been a dearth of talk about how to impact this age group. From targeted marketing to singles events, from young donor groups to leadership training, young Jews have been the focus of much attention. We are rarely, however, included in major decision-making or consulted when the organized Jewish community creates new initiatives.

When one looks below the radar screen of the mainstream Jewish community, a different story emerges. Today, a new generation of Jews across the country are initiating projects, making their marks on Jewish communal organizations, and developing new ideas that hold promise for a more vital Jewish community. These innovators, many of whom work outside mainstream Jewish life, often have difficulty securing necessary resources. If we are to succeed in creating a new generation of organizations and programs, Jewish social entrepreneurs need to be trained, supported, and encouraged.

Many philanthropists have taken this concept to heart and have shown interest in making strategic investments in and grants to these young innovators. By supporting the projects and programs initiated by young people, today’s philanthropists are acting as venture capitalists for social change. Let’s call them “Jewish social venture capitalists.”

A 1998 study, underwritten by the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation, addressed the concerns of this next generation. The study, which included in-depth interviews with several emerging Jewish social entrepreneurs (ages 23-35) found that access to capital, technical assistance in several areas, and mentorship were necessary for the success of these innovators.

Within the last year, several organizations have emerged to promote and support Jewish social entrepreneurship. One such program, Bikkurim, is housed in the offices of the United Jewish Communities in New York and has set up an incubator for five projects in the New York metropolitan area. Starting this fall, Bikkurim will provide office space and services for individuals forming new programs.

Joshua Venture: A Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurs, the program I am helping to launch, will initially offer eight fellowships to emerging Jewish social entrepreneurs. It will support and train individuals by providing the assistance they need to transform their visions into action. The two-year national fellowship program provides seed capital, entrepreneurial training, mentorship, technical assistance, and Jewish learning to innovators ages twenty-one to thirty-five.

What sets Joshua Venture apart from other Jewish leadership programs is its focus on entrepreneurship – educating Fellows to use the most effective practices from the for-profit and nonprofit worlds. Fellows receive professional guidance in strategic planning, marketing, fundraising, board development, budgeting, technology, and evaluation – all key components to running successful projects.

In order to keep Judaism relevant to this and future generations, it is necessary to strategically take risks and encourage innovation. As Woody Allen said, “If you don’t fail now and again, it’s a sign you’re playing it safe.” It is through such innovation that the Jewish community will flourish and thrive.

When asked recently about which factors are most relevant to a decision about speculative giving, a national funder responded: “the person, the idea, and the timing.” Considering that we have a new generation of Jews interested in creating community, and that ideas are sprouting at a time when resources and training are available, “if not now, when?”

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Brian Gaines, 36, is an entrepreneur. After ten years of starting and running a successful small business, he is now the Executive Director for Joshua Venture: A Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurs. A native New Yorker, Brian has lived in San Francisco for the last eleven years.

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