Earlier this week, the Slingshot Fund released its annual Slingshot Guide, a “resource for Jewish innovation.” We reached out to Will Schneider, executive director of Slingshot, to talk about how the Jewish innovation arena has evolved in the 10 years since Slingshot began creating its guides — and where we still need to see change, especially when it comes to philanthropy and engaging Jews in social justice.
Questions for Will Schneider: Slingshot Turns 10
ZEEK: There’s a great line in the introduction to the Slingshot 2014-15 Guide: “Innovation has not emerged as a counterpart to ‘traditional’ Jewish life, but rather as a path forward for every organization seeking to remain relevant in a changing Jewish community.” Do you think the culture of the mainstream North American Jewish community is more open to innovation then it was a decade ago? Does that make it easier for emerging Jewish innovators to find their feet?
Will: Yes, I think it’s easier to launch an organization of your own than it was ten 10 years ago, but maybe even more importantly I think existing Jewish organizations are far more likely to have open jobs that you’ll find exciting. Our point in the introduction is that the Jewish community is becoming a more hospitable place for innovative leaders. So if you’re a professional thinking of working in the Jewish community, you are increasingly likely to work for an organization that values the ability to look at the need being served and develop new ways to serve it.
ZEEK: I’m thrilled to see so many social justice organizations included in the 2014-15 lineup — including the two “Oldest Organizations,” Bend the Arc (1984) and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (1990). We delight in organizations that work against traditional silos, especially those bringing new tools, energy and strategies into the arena where Jews engage with social justice. What stands out here today for you? [Or, What have you been most struck by in creating this year’s Slingshot Guide?*
Will: I agree, I love seeing those organizations make the list also. JFREJ and Bend the Arc are a good examples of what we look for — organizations that have their own understanding of the needs in Jewish community. So with Marjorie [Dove Kent] and JFREJ you can express your Judaism while caring about the rights of domestic workers, for example. For many Jews in New York, the people at a JFREJ event are their Jewish community. Bend the Arc is highlighting a path for Jews to find community and influence change on a large scale, which is meaningful to many people who don’t currently have a Jewish outlet to care about community-wide change. Social justice organizations’ impact on the world is of course valuable, of course, but the impact on Jews looking for community may have even longer-term results.
ZEEK: From where you sit, do you think funders are more interested in supporting social justice organizations now than 10 years ago? How much more do younger funders lean in this direction?
I don’t think social justice organizations have perfected their messaging to funders quite yet. I think there is more and more funding available for organizations that build Jewish communities, but those funds do not always go to social justice organizations. I think the reason why is about messaging. Social justice organizations build important communities, but focus their messaging on the social change they create. It’s my feeling that social change is a by-product of the true change, which is the community created. Funders will support meaningful Jewish communities. It’s hard to paint younger funders with one brush, but I think they are predictably interested in organizations with real, quantifiable impact. Communities can be surveyed and measured, and social change can be seen, so there should be an opportunity for social justice projects to be successful with younger funders.
ZEEK: The Slingshot Guide has helped lift up a decade of emerging Jewish organizations, legitimizing their efforts, bringing them together in one place and helping them find like-minded partners, allies and funders. How is Slingshot’s role evolving, in spotlighting organizations, as a grantmaker and a convener/educator of young philanthropists?
Will: Our next evolution will bring us online in a stronger way, which you can see through the new platform at slingshotfund.org/directory, as well as narrower and deeper through our geographic editions. People do care about innovation on a national scale, but far more people want to know about what is happening in their own backyards. The Slingshot guides to DC, women and girls, and the Mmidwest are finding audiences the national guide couldn’t resonate with. I think you’ll see more “narrow and deep” work from Slingshot in the next few years.
ZEEK: Now that you’re hitting the 10-year mark, in what ways do you see Slingshot’s mandate shifting? I’m curious, in particular, about your long-term focus on Jews in their 20s and 30s. Does your demographic get older with you? Or do you think of it more along the lines of NextGen cohorts? *The Slingshot Guide showcases organizations that are, for the most part, innovative and sustainable. So often, the answer to whether an organization will thrive or self-destruct depends on how it balances this tension. Is there one key thing that stands out for you as a predictor of success?
Will: Not only are those not in tension, but in my opinion innovation is necessary for sustainability. You don’t need to crank out new programs every year, but you need to demonstrate to your funders and stakeholders that you continue to examine the best ways of achieving your mission, rather than running the same program year-in and year-out, despite decreasing effectiveness. It has been my experience that the major donors of the Jewish community want to fund the risk involved with evolving ideas and organizations that are built to experiment.
ZEEK: Since Slingshot did its first guide, the word “innovation” itself has lost its verve a bit, and its overuse has softened its impact. Is there a different or new way we should be thinking or talking about new ways of doing things?
I heard that rumor also, but it’s not true. The cool kids still like the word “innovation.” Seriously though, don’t get hung up on the semantics. Call it whatever you want, and we choose to stick with innovation, but we’re talking about having an allegiance to mission (i.e. building community) over tactics (i.e. an annual mission trip). Innovation is about running an organization that is and stays relevant to the needs of the community it serves, and innovative leaders have to be brave to change tactics that no longer workd. For example, Slingshot prints our book, but that’s not who we are. The book is a means to an end, and the skill of running Slingshot is knowing if the end is being achieved. If that end isn’t achieved, I hope we’ll be brave enough to find new tactics.
ZEEK: For those of us interested in creating a vibrant, inclusive, diverse Jewish community, what would you like to add? What should we be thinking about as we look ahead?
Read through Slingshot and let it be an inspiration for you. Many of the organizations have identified news ways to build successful, meaningful communities, and they will all take your call to talk about how they do it.
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