Viva PLP!

(This item by Joshua Avedon and Shawn Landres is cross-posted from the blog at eJewish Philanthropy.)

Last week the Jewish innovation ecosystem suffered the first loss of a keystone organization since the economic ice age began. The Professional Leaders Project (PLP) is the premier independent entity for developing and educating the next generation of Jewish leaders, both volunteer and professional.

One thing is clear. PLP’s mission of “turning leadership over to the next generation” will live on, most importantly because of its sustained investment in developing the talent and networks that formed the backbone of its program offering. And PLP itself plans to take its mission online with a Virtual ThinkTank, issuing a call for ideas on how to sustain its contribution to the sector even without programs on the ground. Whether specific PLP programs find new homes at other organizations (and we hope they do – more on that later), thousands of people will carry the lessons they learned through PLP to organizations old, new, and yet to be born.

One of PLP’s many unique aspects is that it recognizes that individual leaders, and the relationships between them, lie at the heart of effective innovation and advocacy for change. PLP has made no distinctions in its offerings to volunteer and professional leaders, in part because it has understood the fluid nature of nonprofit leadership in the 21st century. This approach has led to some interesting interactions and collaborations that never could have taken place in more conventional leadership development programs, where individuals are often stuck in tracks according to their interests, roles or geography.

PLP is the vision of an extraordinary leader, Rhoda Weisman. In her previous role as Hillel‘s Chief Creative Officer, she created a slew of new initiatives which helped redefine the organization for a new era, including Tzedek Hillel, the Campus Leadership Initiative, and many others. She was a key player in the creation of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, as well as the first director of the Jewish Campus Service Corps. As a Jewish innovator, Rhoda has defined what it means to think out of the box, empower new leadership, and catalyze change in organizations new and established. Her work at Hillel demonstrated her unique aptitude for spotting and developing talent in an atmosphere of collaboration and personal growth. In creating PLP, Rhoda identified and filled a vacuum in Jewish leadership development, one that bridged the established and emerging Jewish nonprofit worlds. Regardless of PLP’s ultimate institutional fate, Rhoda deserves credit for launching and developing the next generation of Jewish leadership. We are sure that whatever she does next will have a similar impact, and Jumpstart is proud to have her as a friend and as a member of our board of advisors.

PLP’s absence will have an immediate impact on the hundreds of young leaders who have been a part of its networks and participants in its leadership development programs. These include hundreds of emerging leaders from around the nation who were recently recruited for PLP’s LiveNetworks 2009, a year-long seminar series incorporating leadership development, Jewish learning, analytical tools, coaching, and mentoring. While many Jewish organizations struggle to find candidates, PLP was able to hand-pick participants who were actually willing to go out of pocket to pay for their participation.

Especially pressing is the question of how to honor the commitment made by the newest members of the LiveNetwork hubs in New York City, Washington, DC, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, 20- and 30-somethings who signed up (and even were willing to pay) for training, networking, and mentoring as volunteer and professional leaders in 2009 and 2010. They now have nowhere to go. Our community cannot afford to let their energy go untapped: we must find alternate ways for them to engage their passions and skills.

Beyond the programs themselves, PLP shutting its doors (and we hope it’s only temporary), is a signal moment for the Jewish startup sector. PLP isn’t just one innovative organization; it is also a critical clearinghouse for the entire Jewish nonprofit workforce pipeline. This is not a trivial need. As the NonProfit Times reported on August 13, the senior management gap in U.S. nonprofits is a matter of growing nationwide concern. The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit human capital think tank, predicts that overcoming this “leadership deficit” will require a commitment “to attract and develop a leadership population 2.4 times the size of the total number currently employed” (Finding Leaders for America’s Nonprofits, 2009).

This issue is only magnified in the organized Jewish community, where according to a study for the Jewish Funders Network and The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP) entitled “Executive Development & Succession Planning: A Growing Challenge for the Jewish Community” (posted August 17 on the JFN website), retirements by long-serving baby boomer executives will create succession challenges at as many as 90% of Jewish organizations over the next decade. As the only independent initiative dedicated to identifying, recruiting, nurturing, and mentoring new volunteer and professional leaders regardless of their institutional affiliation, PLP played a vital role seeding the Jewish ecosystem with human capital. PLP’s absence will be felt quickly, and painfully, unless others step up to fill the gap with programs that continue these critical elements: institutional independence, the recognition that volunteer and professional leadership are intertwined and often interchangeable over the course of a person’s career, and, most importantly, not only a genuine belief in and commitment to the process of innovation and renewal, but indeed the explicit acknowledgement of the real contributions that new leaders bring to the missions and institutions they serve.

The bigger question raised by PLP’s abrupt disappearance is whether this is a harbinger of a cascade of more closures of innovative new projects, or (as we think more likely), the beginning of a realignment of the Jewish infrastructure as it adapts to the altered landscape left behind by the big freeze caused by the economic crisis and Madoff grand larceny. Likely more significant projects will fold, and others may merge in order to survive. Perhaps PLP’s investment in turning Jewish leadership over to the next generation infused the innovation ecosystem with enough human resource momentum so that the work done by PLP will become a core activity of all organizations, both old and new. Or perhaps other organizations will actually pick up some of the programs launched by PLP – we’re thinking especially of the LiveNetwork hubs – and give them new life.

Certainly it would be a waste to allow the framework created by PLP’s visionary work to simply cease because of a potentially temporary funding challenge. One could imagine regional and/or national players deciding that the gatherings of talent represented by the LiveNetwork Hubs shouldn’t be abandoned, then deciding to absorb them into their own organizations. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the shock of this singular event will cause some forward-thinking Jewish philanthropists to come forward to rescue PLP and to demonstrate to the hundreds of PLPers that their unique value to the Jewish world is not unnoticed, and must be preserved, whether in its current form or in a new structure.

Whatever happens, when the history is written of the first epoch of the Jewish innovation ecosystem, we believe that our community will see PLP for what it was, is and could be: one of the Jewish world’s richest talent pools and development laboratories for emerging leadership. Viva PLP.

The Jewish Innovation Pipeline: A Google Chrome OS for New Jewish Organizations?

(This item by Joshua Avedon is cross-posted from the blog at eJewish Philanthropy.)

Seth Cohen recently challenged us to think about 5 key questions facing Jewish innovation. While we hope his excellent analysis continues to spark a broader conversation in the Jewish world, Jumpstart sees a big picture answer emerging to the "How?" issue he raises. And we’d like to frame it by taking a page from one of our favorite innovators from the technology world, Google.

Google recently announced the launch of the Chrome Operating System, an efficient, distributed platform that is Google’s latest run at Microsoft, purveyor of the market-dominant, yet much maligned Windows operating system. In their press release about the Chrome OS, Google said "It’s our attempt to re-think what operating systems should be."

Jumpstart was created in an attempt to re-think how best to support new Jewish projects, driven largely by the same parameters. We wanted to create something simple, smart, universally-accessible, that uses scarce resources efficiently and works the way its users do – rather than making them plod along with a clunky system designed for a bygone era.

And we aren’t alone. Over the past ten years as Jewish innovation has taken off, a comprehensive support system for creative Jewish endeavors has begun to take shape. In a way, this innovation pipeline is like an operating system for Jewish social entrepreneurs – a platform that supports basic functions so they can do their work more effectively.

The pipeline still has some critical gaps, but there are a number of organizations now contributing to an end-to-end solution that is transforming the way Jewish organizations launch in the 21st century.

One part of the pipeline acts as a catalyst for creativity. Organizations like REBOOT, Jewlicious, Jewcy and ZEEK seed the clouds with new ideas and inspiration.

Some of the pipeline is focused on developing the human resources to power the innovation sector. That section includes youth fellowships and Hillel’s Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, as well as professional and lay leader development organizations like PLP.

One of the first supporters of the current wave of Jewish innovation was the Joshua Venture, which has re-launched and will be powering new cohorts of Jewish social entrepreneurs in the years to come. Along with support such as the AVI CHAI Fellowship, these kinds of funding enable mature leaders to pursue their goals with substantial monetary support.

Innovation funding is critical to every part of the pipeline, from alumni funds offering seed stage investment such as the BYFI Alumni Venture Fund and The Covenant Foundation’s Ignition Grants, to venture and mezzanine level funders, such as The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, The Natan Fund, and various Jewish Venture Philanthropy Funds, on up to mega funders like the the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life which support large-scale programs like Birthright.

Other organizations create the peer networks of innovators, like ROI, Selah, and RIKMA in Israel.

On the direct support side, a number of organizations function as idea labs, incubators and capacity-builders, such as The PresenTense Institute, Bikkurim, The Paideia Project Incubator, UpStart Bay Area, Shatil in Israel and Jumpstart.

The challenges of running a new public benefit enterprise are numerous, and while social innovators tend to know their markets and deliver their products exceptionally well, we know from the study we recently published with Natan and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation (The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape) that they struggle with basic operational management and administration. And common sense says that when social innovators can focus on their core strengths and partner for generic management support, their projects have more impact and reach. As Bob Goldfarb rightfully pointed out, many people think that "Building a successful program into a self-sustaining organization may not be as exciting as working with startups but it is crucial to the health of the ecosystem." But we’d rather think about it the way Tides Center (a leader in nonprofit incubation) puts it: "Infrastructure is sexy."

Jumpstart has recently added what we see as a critical piece of the pipeline – the first full-service turnkey fiscal sponsorship platform dedicated to supporting Jewish projects. We’ve partnered with Community Partners, a market-leading organization that supports public benefit organizations through fiscal sponsorship and capacity-building. Based in Los Angeles, (like Jumpstart), Community Partners has served more than 550 projects and civic leaders since 1992 through its administrative and financial services, programmatic counsel, and training. Fiscal sponsorship is a well-developed model in the non-Jewish nonprofit world, but up until now no one has provided a turnkey, full service way to bring this powerful "enabling technology" to the Jewish world. Projects operating under fiscal sponsorship receive complete infrastructure support from day one, without having to undergo the lengthy and often costly process of applying for 501(c)(3) status from the IRS. Sponsored projects can accept tax-exempt donations and operate under the corporate umbrella of their sponsor, which means they get complete insurance coverage and access to pooled benefits and payroll services. So becoming a sponsored project lowers barriers to getting started and speeds time to market – solving two critical problems for social entrepreneurs.

One key effect of having solutions like this in place is that not only do they make it easier to launch new endeavors, but they also reduce the cost of failure. Projects can be piloted and tested successfully without spending large amounts of money on building infrastructure first.

The Community Partners/Jumpstart Partnership is one piece of an emerging pipeline for Jewish innovation that includes forward-thinking funders, idea laboratories, leadership networks, established organizations with intrapreneurial programs, and direct support organizations.
The pipeline grows bit by bit as gaps become apparent and organizations and individuals move to put new pieces in place. The work is by nature collaborative and distributed – kind of like an Internet-based open-source software project. Google’s Chrome OS comes at a time when Internet technology has provided an entirely new way to go about computing. The pieces that constitute the Jewish innovation pipeline are creating an entirely new way to build Jewish organizations in the 21st century.

Joshua Avedon is co-founder and COO of Jumpstart, a thinkubator for sustainable Jewish innovation. In addition to their work with Community Partners, Jumpstart is also taking the lead on creating J Space, a shared work, resource, and education center for Jewish innovation in Los Angeles.