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Jewish Social Entrepreneurs and the “Right Stuff” – What Is It and Who Has It?

July 21, 2009

In marking the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, it has been hard not to get wrapped up in the nostalgia of America greatest space adventure to date, the Apollo missions and man’s first, and (so far) last steps on the moon. As we look back at that landmark of scientific and human achievement of a man walking on the moon, we cannot help but wonder when we will once again collectively experience a moment of such singular scientific and adventurous achievement. (Note: Just a thought, but maybe next time there is such a singular achievement it will be a woman rather than a man as the “first” of its kind?)

But even more than the amazing stories and visuals of those moments that we store in our collective memory, so much of what we admire about the Apollo missions relates to those who made the missions possible, particularly those astronauts that had the ability to convert promise into action and achievement. Those men that walked on the moon not only had the technical qualifications to participate in one of mankind’s greatest scientific endeavors, but they also had the dedication, stamina and courage to encounter the unencountered, and to boldly experience that which had yet to be experienced.

Those astronauts met the objective and qualifying criteria to be part of their mission, but they also had the intangibles to make their mission a success. Just like the astronauts in the Mercury missions before them, these astronauts had the “right stuff.”

Notwithstanding all of this talk about the moon though, my thoughts have still been squarely about a different group of adventurers here on earth, the cadre of social entrepreneurs that exist and are developing in the broader national and international Jewish community.  To that end, I have had numerous recent conversations with friends and colleagues involved in social entrepreneurship, and it seems that at one point or another we end up debating the “right stuff” in the context of two fundamental questions:

1.    What are the important qualities that social entrepreneurs need to possesses (or alternatively, need to have developed, supported and reinforced) in order to be successful?

2.    What are best strategies to identify and encourage social entrepreneurs who have those desired qualities to actively engage within the Jewish community (however small or large we choose to define that community)?

In other words: when it comes to Jewish social entrepreneurship, what is the “right stuff” and who has it?

Now I didn’t just fall off a lunar lander, and I know that there is substantial dialogue and resources in the Jewish community focused on these very issues. But notwithstanding the increasing number and volume of voices speaking on the topic, much of the organizational infrastructure and literature have not yet caught up with the rapidly changing face of Jewish (and general) social entrepreneurship. For example, we presume to know what skills are needed to successful serve on a board, but what about creating one for an emerging organization?  We presume to know what skills are needed to leverage volunteer leadership to perform conventional volunteer roles, but what about leveraging unconventional partnerships among leaders, professionals and organizations?

We think we know what the right stuff is – but do we? We might think we know who has it – but are we so sure?

Our confidence in our answers to these questions is important because we are making decisions in the Jewish community that require us to have boldness as well as confidence.  Case in point, even while facing increased needs for human services and support of educational infrastructure, the Jewish community is investing, with some risk, in the next (or “now”) generations of social entrepreneurs. This investment is aligned with, not contrary to, our collective focus on addressing broad community needs. But make no mistake, as a community we are more frequently redirecting funds from maintaining tried and true organizations to funding new and unproved entrepreneurs.  In doing so we are rightfully making small and large bets on individuals and organizations, bets that we hope will pay off in ways we can anticipate as well as in ways we can’t yet imagine.

As we make those bets we need to keep in mind a clear (although not uniform) understanding of what the right stuff is, who has it, and how we continue to cultivate it. But we shouldn’t hesitate to bet on the bold and the big ideas, even those longshot ideas that aim for the moon. Because you know what?

With the right stuff, I bet we can get there.

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