When UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey adopted a strategic plan last year, its leaders kept in mind that not only do communal needs change, but communal organizations must change as well to effectively service those needs.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve come to realize that the federation itself had to change, to be more nimble, flexible, and innovative,” said its president, Alan Scharfstein. “We have a great base, but times are changing. We must make sure the organization changes along with them.”
UJA-NNJ is fashioning vehicles to accomplish this change, he said. Among these initiatives is the Adler Family Innovation Fund.
“What we recognize is that we really need to create an atmosphere of innovation,” said Scharfstein. “We need to engage new stakeholders and donors with whom our traditional models may not resonate.” For this, he said, “We need to develop new sources of funding to keep the organization fresh and vibrant.”
The Innovation Fund builds on the idea that while UJA-NNJ must continue to support core agencies, “we also need to develop the ability to fund innovative ideas; to encourage people who have great new ideas that could benefit the Jewish community and to provide them with seed funding.”
Whether viewed as “venture philanthropy or a way of encouraging the brightest in the community to focus attention on creative ideas,” the fund is a way of “combining all these great ideas into an actionable and real entity,” he said. “It allows us to show that we’re a community that puts its money where its mouth is.”
In addition to monetary contributions, he said, the fund is looking for volunteers to become involved in the preliminary review of proposals as well as post-grant mentoring functions.
Tenafly resident Carol Silberstein, chair of the funding process subcommittee of the Innovation Fund, said the thinking behind the venture was “to broaden our own understanding and support for groups doing important work in the community and open up the universe of potential grantees beyond those we generally fund.”
She believes the fund will help engage new constituencies and “touch donor passions. Our goal really is to act as an incubator for new and creative programs [that] solve problems in our community,” she said, noting that “community” embraces Israel as well as other countries.
Silberstein, who formerly headed the federation’s overseas allocations committee, cited four priorities arising from the strategic planning process: promoting and expanding a sense of Jewish community in northern New Jersey; enhancing affordability and access to Jewish cultural and educational experiences; providing a safety net to protect Jews in need; and strengthening the connection between this area and Israel.
“The Innovation Fund is directly tied in to these four categories, looking for proposals that advance any of these areas,” she said. In addition, “we are particularly interested in projects that involve collaboration between two or more organizations, with the objective of sharing resources and expertise in order to maximize impact.”
Silberstein said she has researched the experience of other federations that do this kind of funding and, based on her findings, expects a good response. The goal is to raise $300,000 for the first year of the fund’s operation.
Tenafly resident Dana Adler – who together with husband James and in-laws Mike and Elaine Adler has made a large initial gift to the fund – said that as a Berrie Fellow several years ago, she learned that younger people like to “follow the money they give away.”
“What this [fund] might provide is a forum for young philanthropists to get together and truly follow their money to see how it makes an impact in the community,” she said.
Speaking to the importance of using social media such as Facebook and YouTube to recruit and educate new donors, she suggested, for example, that those interested in contributing to a group home might want to see what is actually going on in those facilities.
With the aid of a camera, “they could see how young people there make Shabbat dinner and feel good that their money went there,” she said. Or those interested in funding additional programs for the PJ Library/Shalom Baby project but who cannot attend the programs personally, might view them on YouTube or visit a special Facebook page.
Using Hillel as another example of a program that might excite young donors, Adler said “Maybe someone not involved in local Jewish philanthropy might get turned on by something like Hillel after they see how it works.”
Adler, who pointed out that both her parents and her in-laws have been involved with the federation and other Jewish causes for many years, said that she hopes the fact that hers is a family gift will inspire other young people.
“I’m not quite sure the idea of the annual fund will work forever,” she said. “It’s up to federation to reinvent itself. This is one way. It’s a fund where people can see what happens to their philanthropic investments. There needs to be a lot of ways, many portals, to involvement.”
For further information about the Innovation Fund, e-mail Miriam Allenson, firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (201) 820-3921.