Pivoting Towards Sustainability:A New/Old Model to Survive and Thrive in this “New Normal”
By Bradley Caro Cook, Ed.D.
I wrote this piece “BCE” (Before the COVID Era). As this global crisis evolves, and the new normal arises, I’ve found this framework to be more relevant than I originally predicted.
The Idea of Sustainability
Whether a startup Jewish nonprofit or legacy organization, the idea of sustainability – how we remain both relevant and within our budget in the long term through good economies and bad – is of significant importance. For startup nonprofits such as the one I co-founded, Career Up Now (www.CareerUpNow.org), it is critical to go beyond lean. We must step into a place that will enable us to establish a strong, scalable framework until either a more significant national funder comes along, or until we have enough local, regional donors to realize our mission wholeheartedly.
Inspiration from Down Under
About a year ago, I was with David Cygielman, CEO of Moishe House, at the Australian Jewish Funder’s Launchpad Gathering. We both were attending as speakers and Jewish Innovators. I expressed to David my concern that as a small startup nonprofit, that we had an amazing organization, doing excellent work, but hadn’t secured a six or seven figure investment from a major funder to scale nationally.
David gave sage advice – rather than spending time to scale, focus on sustainability, doing good work, and staying in front of more significant funders as one may step in to help you scale. However, in the meantime, enjoy what you are doing and figure out how to be sustainable.
Finding a “Simple Solution”
As a social entrepreneur dedicated to finding simple solutions to complex problems facing Jewish communities, I knew that if there were a simple solution to the problem of sustainability, I would find it, and eureka, I have. Still, it’s not a new solution. It’s one that ensured the viability of Israel in its early days. That vintage wisdom is even more relevant today than ever – especially in the face of COVID-19 and the current financial crisis.
An “Intentional” Shift
The answer is to shift towards intentional communities that rely more on lay leader human capital than on financial resources.
Here are the ingredients to this low-cost, high impact model to ensure sustainable success with the forthcoming model I will present:
1. A community-based organization with traction amongst a core group of individuals, or multiple core groups of individuals spread across cities,
2. A vision and a shared mission for the future,
3. A local need for the offering of the entity,
4. Competent and skilled lay leaders, and
5. A plan and framework from which to launch.
The State of Israel was established even though it lacked significant financial resources. What Israel, then Palestine, did have was tremendous people-power. A group of core individuals dedicated to the mission and vision of establishing a free and independent state. Those individuals banded together to establish shared-agricultural communities under socialist principles called Kibbutzim. These Kibbutzim required more people-power than they did financial resources. The infrastructure was lean, the people were passionate, and for most it was their only option to reclaim our ancestral homeland.
Against all the odds, over-time, these intentional communities thrived and built the framework for a country that is now a global force.
As Israel industrialized, and greater security was established, there was room for self-interest to become the primary mission. So, the Kibbutz Movement suffered. But the socialist ideal did not.
These intentional communities morphed into Urban Kibbutzim, driven by shared mission and values. And intentional communities of teachers, artists, entrepreneurs, farmers, newcomers to religious Judaism, and visionaries living close to each other. They became a hybrid of NGOs (non-governmental organizations, aka nonprofits) and community. They revitalized and are currently revitalizing communities, buildings, forming partnerships with government entities, and thriving. They relied less on outside investments and more so on the internal power of the core group of people involved.
Who Thrived & Who Didn’t Survive?
During the financial crisis of the 2000s, while many Israeli NGOs collapsed due to a lack of funding, intentional communities weathered those storms and came out stronger.
While many national nonprofits in the United States have come to rely on a core group of funders, some critical questions to ask are:
What about the small and medium-sized nonprofits that do not have significant funder support?
For those that do have considerable support if the economy collapses and those funders stopped funding, would those organizations survive?
Or even if one of those significant funders withdrew, would the organization sustain itself, or would it need to sunset,merge, or be acquired?
Big Money Early on to Scale
We’ve seen examples of major funders stepping in relatively early with now well-known organizations such as Moishe House, Honeymoon Israel, OneTable, PJ Library, IAC, Birthright, TAMID Group, Onward Israel, Interfaith Family, JWRP (Momentum) and others.
These substantial investments enabled these organizations to scale rapidly, and the long-term commitment of funders ensure their sustainability. Without the dedication of significant long-term donors, many of these organizations would collapse.
Many of the organizations mentioned above diversified their funding, with a model of local community funding, Federations, individual donors, earned revenue streams, and others continue to rely on a core group of major funders.
Or in the case that a well-liked entity that had a significant original investment, then didn’t have a mega-funder hero step in, we see the effects, i.e., G-d Cast/BimBam.
Or, in the case of a foundation that sunsets, those organizations faced similar challenges towards their diminishing, i.e., Eli Talks, leading to acquisitions by larger entities.
Or, sadly, as is within the COVID-19 crisis, philanthropic contributions are predicted to decrease significantly, or more significant funders may pull-out over time if their giving priorities or capicity decreases, and these organizations may not recover.
If Not Now, When?
COVID-19 is an excellent time to go back to the drawing board and ask the existential questions of making it through this crisis and emerging stronger and better equipped.
A substantial benefit of an intentional community model is that it ensures that even during a time of financial crisis, where programs decrease, the entity will survive or thrive.
The Evolving Results of Our “Intentional Pivot”: A Hybrid Model
Over the past two years, with the support of Hakhel, the world’s largest Jewish Intentional Community Incubator, Career Up Now implemented a human-centered design to shift from a solely programmatic model to a hybrid intentional community model in 7 cities (Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Las Vegas).
Our definition of an Jewish intentional community is a group of individuals who live in close proximity to each other dedicated to the same mission, vision, and values.
This approach has enabled us, with minimal staff, to run like a much larger-staffed organization in each of those cities by relying on lay leaders and the collective “Kibbutz-Like” process – the emphasis on process, not meaning living together.
Rather than relying primarily on treasure and financial donations, Career Up Now tapped into human capital and the desire of our constituents to make a difference. For even in a financial crisis, where the treasure is limited, human capital and the desire to make a difference are abundant.
“Never Let A Crisis Go to Waste”
To co-opt Rahm Emanuel, never let a good crisis go to waste. COVID-19 is a genuine a crisis, and in this time of social spaciousness, there is an opportunity to determine what path we will take and who will we be when we emerge. This crisis is a rare time to evaluate and shift towards sustainability.
To Be Continued…
Stay tuned for my next article, which will layout a step by step guide on how we at Career Up Now shifted from a program-based model to an intentional community model.
Bradley Caro Cook, Ed.D. is the executive director of CareerUpNow.org – a national Jewish nonprofit dedicated to establishing and growing local Jewish intentional communities of emerging professionals and community/industry leaders to advance one another’s lives – personally, professionals, and soulfully. If you’d like to learn more about Career Up Now or shifting towards an intentional community model, Bradley can be reached at Bradley@careerupnow.org