It seems in the world of philanthropy every five years or so a new buzzword or phrase overtakes charitable foundations and other institutional and private funders. During the span of my career we’ve been through efficiency, effectiveness, strategic philanthropy, venture philanthropy, and impact, to name a few. As these concepts build on each other they travel in turn through the nonprofit and philanthropic sector as magic bullet of the day. As in many fields, trends in philanthropy tend to follow a similar trajectory from insightful and powerful to hackneyed and meaningless. The tragedy of this, of course, is that we often underutilize the philanthropic sector’s best ideas in practice even as we overuse them in rhetoric.
This brings us to the sector’s latest darling, innovation. As with trends that have gone before, there is both meaningless noise and tremendous value embedded in the notion of innovation as a tool. As an educator, head of school or development director, what are you to make of funders and would be funders who put out a public call for “innovation”? Just what do they want? Is this an additional activity to add to your already overtaxed schedule, or could this be something game-changing and essential to core programming? Where is the boundary between the short-sighted appeal of the “shiny new toy” and the opportunity to create genuinely transformative new strategies and models for day school education?
The invitation to innovation should be viewed as an opportunity to challenge assumptions about how we do what we do. I believe deeply in the human capacity to create new solutions to old problems. And I believe with equal conviction in the power of the nonprofit sector as a collaborative vehicle and competitive venue for the creation of public good through a diversity of programs and initiatives that neither government nor the commercial sector would ever generate. It is worth taking a moment to recognize and appreciate that your school, as a voluntary private enterprise creating communal value (public good), is part of the broader nonprofit and philanthropic sector in America.
Allow—even if just for a moment—the pressures of the day to slide into the background and consider your school in this context. Even with all the challenges, we are blessed with extraordinary freedom to organize our infrastructure, curriculum, operations and governance any way we see fit. With this freedom comes the responsibility to ask ourselves if we are deploying our precious resources most effectively, delivering maximum return on the investment of time, money, talent and effort we put into our work.
As a foundation executive, I am always stunned by how few organizations can give a clear, consistent answer to the simple question, “What are you trying to accomplish?” Common sense dictates that one is unlikely to hit a target he or she cannot identify. But even the best nonprofits are sometimes guilty of falling into a sort of autopilot mode, slogging through the days unthinkingly, struggling to impress funders, meet budgets and keep going.
An occupational hazard in education and other human services is losing touch with the highest purpose of our work. Innovation offers a tool for combatting this institutional entropy. When we detach from “we’ve always done it this way” thinking and rigorously search for transformative approaches to our work, the discussion invariably winds its way around to defining what ultimate success in our work would look like. By forcing us to think about how, innovation brings us into the realms of what and why. Even if this were all innovation accomplished, it would be worthwhile.
Innovation is not only counter to the flow of organizational life, it is downright risky business. For schools, so dependent on trust expressed through enrollment and contributions, innovation means deviating from communal expectations. For funders, it means investing money in experimental approaches that are equally likely to produce disappointment as the breakthrough results we all hope for. In the age of outcomes data, many funders do not have the patience for experimentation that innovation demands. Organizations typically grow increasingly risk averse as they age, often perilously oblivious to the invisible, larger risks of organizational inertia. In the nonprofit sector, therefore, truly disruptive innovation as prescribed by author and innovation guru Clayton Christensen (borrowing from Schumpeter’s economic concept of “creative destruction”) usually requires a strong external catalyst.
In our foundation’s work with the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), our aim is to stimulate an honest resumption of the creative experimentation that characterized American Jewish day school education in its early years. The objective of innovation is not creativity for its own sake, but rather a clarification of goals and a rethinking of strategies for building up future generations who are healthy, inspired, informed, practicing Jews with different needs from the previous generation. Jewish day schools accomplish much, but we need educators and funders alike to engage the hardest questions. Are we really satisfied with what our schools accomplish today? How would schools have to change in order to help our students connect exponentially more deeply to God, to their own inner potential and to the Jewish people? What reconfiguration might create more profound experiences for our kids? What kind of schools would attract Jews who currently do not send their kids to day schools? I do not claim to know the answers to these questions, but I do know I want our most talented educators actively grappling with these issues on a continuous basis, developing ever better models for the schools of the future.
During the past two years JEIC has funded and researched four new models for Jewish education created by talented educators, enabling them to field-test their ideas in the schools in which they work. We also research the critical success factors and shortcomings of those models and plan on publicly sharing those outcomes for others to build on our grantees’ experimentation. You can find out more about these projects as well as JEIC grant opportunities for your school at www.jewishchallenge.org. The challenge is open to any Jewish school with a middle school or high school, regardless of denomination.
When I was a nonprofit executive director, I came to understand that funders who believed in our work needed our execution skills as much as we needed their money. As a foundation executive I see this reality even more keenly. Without forward-thinking organizations and initiatives to fund, philanthropists can only dream of improving the world. JEIC, along with a variety of other creative funding initiatives that have cropped up around Jewish education, is challenging the field to pull back and take a fresh look at itself.
This should be received as an invitation to forge a partnership. Creative funders and talented educators must work together, asking the toughest questions, rethinking objectives, and rejuvenating or recreating institutions that, together with parents, will guide future generations of Jews into the beauty and fulfillment of Jewish living. When we do, we will have harnessed innovation as a powerful tool, not just the latest in a string of engaging ideas from the philanthropic sector.
Todd J. Sukol is executive director of the Mayberg Family Foundation, and previously served as president of Do More Mission and executive director of the Koby Mandell Foundation. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) is a grantmaking initiative designed to disrupt complacency and encourage innovation in Jewish day school education. By rewarding and collaborating with talented innovators, JEIC seeks to improve the way Jewish values, literacy, practice and belief are transferred to the next generation. The project's ultimate success will be the creation and implementation of revolutionary, practical educational models that are sustainable, accountable and scalable.
The Mayberg Family Foundation is a grantmaking family foundation with a high impact, entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy. Trustees Louis and Manette Mayberg serve on a variety of boards and are deeply involved in many issues and initiatives impacting how future generations will sustain Jewish values, literacy, practice and belief. Giving priorities include Jewish outreach and Jewish education.