Crowdfunding the Jewish Future

I am spending today walking around downtown Jacksonville, Florida to see what all the buzz is about. Over this five day period (from April 9th – April 13th) Jacksonville is hosting One Spark. One Spark is a crowdfunding festival for social innovation. Throughout the festival, more than 150,000  visitors will tour the twenty-square block gallery of ideas downtown to see new and creative ideas from social entrepreneurs, artists, innovators, and inventors and decide which ideas deserve an investment. These projects can be at any stage of development. It can be a not-for-profit that has been doing work for years or an idea written out on a piece of scrap paper waiting to become reality. All a creator needs is an idea. The creator then convinces visitors about the importance of his or her innovation. If a visitor likes an idea, then he or she can vote for it.

According to the One Spark website, there are four ways to acquire funding:

  1. Wow attendees and collect their votes to score a piece of the $200,000 crowdfund. Whatever percentage of the vote a Project receives, that’s how much of the crowdfund they earn. The top voted Creator Project in each category will get their hands on a $10,000 bonus prize!
  2. Attendees can contribute directly to Projects in any dollar amount. From $5 to $5,000, every little bit adds up to getting you that much closer to launching your idea.
  3. Along with the popularly distributed funds, industry experts will jury an additional $10,000 prize to the innovative Project of their choice in each category.
  4. Connect with millions of dollars in potential capital from hungry investors out to discover the next big thing!

One gets the opportunity to pitch his or her ideas with literally thousands of individuals and get funded as a result.

With the instant connection and communication of the Internet, crowdfunding has taken off in recent years, with websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo offering platforms for artists and inventors to beg their friends – their actual friends and those of the social network variety – to invest in their ideas. Hollywood is even using crowdfunding to make movies. To make the Veronica Mars movie, and finish telling the story of his cancelled television show, director Rob Thomas took to Kickstarter and raised over $5,700,000 from over 90,000 supporters. He made a movie through crowdfunding. Hollywood is doing it. The entire city of Jacksonville is doing it. The Jewish community should be doing it as well.

It seems that after week I read article after article about the financial challenges in the established Jewish community. Following the publication of last year’s Pew Study, Jewish communal leaders, clergy, educators, and philanthropists are regularly struggling with where to invest funds to ensure a vibrant Jewish future in America. These conversations are going on as synagogues, Jewish day schools, camps, youth groups, and non-profits are all struggling to balance their budgets.

That does not mean there is not demand for new ideas. Hundreds of “Jewish Start-Ups” and social innovations have been launched recently. Incubators such as the Joshua Venture Group, Bikkurim, UpStart, JumpStart, and PresenTense have helped these social entrepreneurs in the Jewish community flesh out their ideas, create successful business models, work on strategic plans, and develop their “brand.” These incubators have helped entrepreneurs stand on their own two feet, but now, these start-ups are struggling with the same challenges the rest of the organized Jewish world face: financial stability.

Everyone knows the big names in Jewish philanthropy. These names are familiar because of the impact they have had on innovation by investing in groundbreaking ideas like increased Israel engagement among college students (Birthright Israel) and an increase in Jewish children’s books (PJ Library). They are also familiar to us though because there are truly only a handful of these big name Jewish philanthropists. Many of us may be willing to shell out millions on the next big idea to engage millenials, prioritize early childhood education, or keep baby boomers involved. We just aren’t blessed with such deep pockets. Crowdfunding has made me realize that we don’t need to be. We can turn to crowdfunding websites for help with innovation in the Jewish community.

More exciting though, and I believe more revolutionary, is the impact that a festival like One Spark could have on the Jewish community. Imagine all these new and revolutionary ideas, these Jewish social entrepreneurs coming together annually at the JFNA’s General Assembly, or at movement gatherings like the USCJ conference or the URJ biennial, to share such innovation. This would not be a Jewish version of ABC’s Shark Tank where social entrepreneurs make pitches to a select few Jewish philanthropists. Rather, it would be an opportunity for any Jew with an impactful idea for the Jewish future to pitch that idea to the entire Jewish community. We each then would have the opportunity to invest in the ideas we like and disregard those ideas that don’t speak to us as individuals. More importantly though, such a festival would allow more exposure to such ideas and in turn, more financial investment, to ensure a vibrant, thriving Jewish community in the future. I look forward to the excitement of One Spark spreading to the American Jewish community.

After all, it only takes is one spark…

About the Author
Rabbi Olitzky serves as rabbi and spiritual leader at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey. He received rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as an MA in Jewish Education from JTS’ William Davidson School of Education. He has been a leader and educator for Jewish youth since for over a decade and is dedicated to getting the Jewish community more heavily involved in issues of social justice.