Idea #5: The Idea Accelerator Model: from Seeding to Scaling
Martin Kaminer, 28 Days, 28 Ideas
We’re at an inflection point in contemporary Jewish history. Inside the Beltway, the Bubble, the Echo Chamber, innovation and social entrepreneurship are in full swing. Programs to support Jewish non-profit startups are proliferating to general delight and acclaim. I have to pinch myself every time I hear someone use a phrase like “The Next Aaron Bisman” or “The Next Hadar”. Meanwhile, in the real world -- the one that starts just west of Riverside Drive and stretches till you cross the I-5 -- the overwhelming majority of people have yet to hear about the current Aaron Bisman or the current Hadar. They don’t know they exist yet and have no idea what good things await them when they do.
The best of the initiatives, projects, organizations and entrepreneurs that have flowered over the past decade have not even begun to fulfill their potential. Our big idea is to help the best of these groups get from here to there – from local and regional success to national and international prominence. We want to help them take their places at the table as equals with organizations that have been around for a century or more.
At Bikkurim: An Incubator for New Jewish Ideas, a program housed at and supported by the Jewish Federations of North America, we’ve spent the last ten years improving our ability to nurture young startups – taking them in at the cusp of real growth, when they’ve had some traction, perhaps have received some funding, and may just be bringing on paid staff. My rule of thumb used to be that when an organization’s budget grew to exceed that of the incubator itself, it was time for them to leave. A number have left with budgets several times that of the incubator. Some have gone on to fame and fortune while others have disappeared from the landscape.
Our goal is to produce sustainable organizations and we’ve wrestled with the problem of what sustainability means in a world that experiences as many gyrations as ours has. Our solution has been to extend the length of incubation from an initial two years to now closer to five with a robust program of alumni support. We could keep extending but feel we’ve reached the limit of our current approach and that a new mission needs a new structure.
So we’re planning for the most significant change to our program since inception. We hope to work with groups the size of those we currently graduate to help them scale sustainably by an accelerated process, producing organizations with greater reach across the worldwide Jewish population and into the funding community. To paraphrase Bialik, when Encounter has the budget of the ADL we’ll know we’ve arrived. Bikkurim, with the full support of The Jewish Federations of North America, is planning to spend the next few months studying what such an accelerator would look like. We’re aware that we need to first grow ourselves before we can help others to reach new heights. We are grateful also for our relationship with UJA-Federation of New York, which shares our interest in this process and has also invested heavily in innovation.
As was the situation with incubators ten years ago, accelerators are not a new phenomenon but have yet to be adapted successfully to the Jewish world. Elsewhere in the non-profit world, the Ashoka Accelerator for Social Entrepreneurship and the Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship are both programs focused on ‘scale and sustainability’ for emerging nonprofits at the “mezzanine level.” We’ll be studying those as well as many others.
As someone who speaks with lots of Jewish social entrepreneurs, I hear them say the number of funders willing to ‘take a risk’ is small. That may be true, but I’ve also heard from at least one wise person who sees the issue from the other side. He feels the amount a major funder, even a risk-tolerant one, is willing to invest in a good idea and a smile is limited. Serious investment requires serious proof of capability, not only evaluations of existing programs but a demonstrated capacity to turn major investment into sustained impact – a plan for growth that goes beyond wide-eyed dreams to a detailed understanding of how organizations develop chapters, offices, branches, policies, talent, how they build a framework through which the good they do in the world can reach those who will benefit from it. Organizations that can communicate and demonstrate this compellingly to major funders don’t have to restrict themselves to a small pool willing to take a risk, they can stand toe to toe with any other nonprofit and any funder large or small.
It is our hope that just as we’ve watched entrepreneurship and innovation move from Yenemsvelt to center stage over the last ten years, ten years hence our community will have a system in place not just to launch new ideas but also to bring them to scale and secure their sustainability. As Shawn Landres and Josh Avedon said in their Idea #3 piece Wednesday, "cumulative force of a series of tiny effects can create systemic change." We're going to try to do our part to make sure that the organizations that carry Jewish life forward are built to last rather than built on buzz. That may not in itself create systemic change but it will certainly set a good example for other stakeholders.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about ‘mezzanine funding’ for growing organizations. Bikkurim itself can’t provide that, though we hope others will. What we do hope to develop are organizations that aren’t just ventures or good ideas with high potential, but that can withstand the scrutiny that accompanies large-scale investment and emerge with flying colors. It may be that one or more of the groups we’ve worked with over the last ten years have this ability and it may be that none do. We don’t yet know. But we owe it to our community and to generations to follow to find out.
If you’re excited by this idea, have advice or suggestions for us or want to join in, please let us know, we’ll be happy to hear from you.