Slingshot Fund & Philanthropic Innovation

We’ve debated recently on this blog whether innovation for the sake of innovation is valuable in the philanthropic sector. I originally said that it was not, but then quickly came around to the idea that since innovation is not rewarded the way it is in the for-profit sector (where most innovations fail, but the few that work make the innovators very wealthy), engaging in pure innovative experimentation is needed in philanthropy.

In the recent Aspen Philanthropy Letter, director Alan Abramsom points to a chapter in Mapping the New World of American Philanthropy where Susan Raymond argues that every foundation should allocate 10% of their resources to “intellectual risk”. So in a world where it is difficult to even identify existing high impact nonprofits, how can innovative new projects be found? One model to examine is Slingshot:

Slingshot is a Zagats-like guidebook that compiles annually the 50 most innovative Jewish non-profits in North America. It was originally conceived of and developed by a group of young Jewish funders called the Grand Street Network, which Sharna Goldseker oversees through her work at 21/64 (a division of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies). The Grand Street funders felt that Jewish Foundations did not have a way to identify and vet the growing number of young, exciting, and under-capitalized Jewish projects emerging across North America.

More recently, a select group of young Jewish Funders (many from Grand Street) launched the Slingshot Fund, designed to highlight, encourage and provide support for a subset of the undercapitalized organizations featured in the Slingshot guidebook each year. This year, they announced their first round of grants to 8 of the organizations listed in the book.

Maybe we don’t need to rate every charity in existence. Maybe we just need to find ways to help the best bubble to the surface.


  1. Holden says:

    I agree with your last paragraph, but:

    1. Have you seen the Slingshot handbook? It seems like 50 promotional blurbs, barely different from mission statements. Sure, someone presumably looked at more than 50 organizations to find these, but who? How?

    I’m interested in your thoughts on the handbook itself. It’s unclear to me who would find this useful.

    2. I believe we need to reward charities for getting results, not for innovating. If we do that, the dynamic you describe up top would happen. Coming up with an innovative new way to improve children’s math skills would result in taking in a ton of funds, just as in the for-profit world. Coming up with something less “flashy” but equally effective would do the same. That’s a better situation than rewarding the flash itself.

  2. The handbook has a methodology section. They relied on evaluation from multiple foundation program officers. I think that getting expert-vetted nonprofits in front of individual donors is a huge step forward.

    I’m at least partially with you on point 2. This is why I’ve argued both sides of the issue. But I think that there needs to be more stimulus for innovation in the philanthropy/nonprofit world. The huge payoffs that accrue to successful innovators in the for-profit world do not exist. But I do agree that innovation is not an end to itself, I just think that spurring pure innovation will lead to innovation that produces results.

  3. Maya Norton says:

    There is something really interesting going on in the Jewish world right now in that a number of prominent individuals and foundations are offering prizes and promoting momentum in the areas of innovation and creativity.

    Consider these current examples:

    1. The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation is offering a prize of a two-year professorship at Brandeis, plus other perks- for the next big idea in Jewish communal innovation (source)

    2. The Charles Bronfman Prize, which is separate from the above, is offering a prize of $100,000 to young visionaries who improve the world through humanitarian efforts (see their website)

    3. Ronny Maman is holding a contest attempting to find ways to improve civility in Israeli society with a reward of $60,000, along with the promise that the best ideas will be published in a book. I write about it here.

    4. And of course, you’ve mentioned Slingshot in this post, which I also write about with a bit more detail.

    Overall, this thinking is a real shift in the standard practice of nonprofit handouts because yes, there are givers and receivers, but the recipients are idealists, thinkers, and innovators.

    I consider this all very exciting and can’t wait to see where it goes.

    Keep in mind that the last contest of this kind in the Jewish community was in 1929 when Mordechai Kaplan wrote his treatise on Reform Judaism, which became a transformative movement in America and changed the face of the Diasporic Jewish community.


    Maya Norton

    The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy

  4. Thanks for the insight Maya. How, if at all, do you think the trend towards “do it yourself” Jewish philanthropy fits into these trends?

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