Does Slingshot guide help innovators hit their marks

The biblical David used a slingshot to kill Goliath, thus earning the attention of King Saul.

Today, Jewish organizations are trying to use the annual Slingshot Guide of the 50 “most innovative organizations and projects” to capture the attention of donors. The ninth installment of the guide was released Oct. 24. (See page 9 for local groups that made the list.)

Launched in 2005 by a group of donors in their 20s and 30s, the guide evaluates North American Jewish organizations based on “their innovative approach, the impact they have in their work, the leadership they have in their sector, and their effectiveness at achieving results.”

Sarah Lefton, G-dcast

Inclusion in Slingshot offers “a stamp of recognition,” said Vivian Stadlin, co-director of Eden Village Camp, a 4-year-old overnight camp focused on environmental sustainability that has appeared in Slingshot for several consecutive years.

“Even if a prospective parent doesn’t know about Slingshot, to be able to say we appear in the Slingshot list of 50 most innovative Jewish groups puts people at ease,” she added. “It gives the sense that they’re climbing aboard a winning ship.”

Ed Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily, a website offering resources for interfaith families and one of the guide’s “standard bearers,” or groups that are included yearly as “models of innovation,” said making the Slingshot list offers a hechsher, or seal of approval, “especially for new organizations getting started.”

While commonly viewed as emphasizing programs serving young Jews, several Slingshot organizations in the guide focus on baby boomers and the elderly, such as Wise Aging, a program of New York’s Institute for Jewish Spirituality that provides “spiritual learning, intellectual engagement and community gathering” for Jews 65 and older, and Kavod v’Nichum, a group in Columbia, Md., that teaches about traditional Jewish burial rituals and provides training and resources to Jewish burial societies.

Whether Slingshot inclusion has a financial benefit is an open question. Guide inclusion does not come with any monetary reward, although those that make the list are eligible to receive grants through the Slingshot Fund.

Julie Finkelstein, Slingshot’s program director, said many organizations “leverage it to receive funding from other sources.” Case said his group has received grants from small foundations that discovered it through Slingshot.

Sarah Lefton, executive director and producer of G-dcast, a new-media production company in San Francisco that has been in Slingshot for four consecutive years, praised the guide, particularly the openness of its organizers to feedback.

However, several professionals say the application process is burdensome, the selection process overly subjective and the payoff not always clear.

A professional with an organization featured multiple times in Slingshot who did not want to be seen publicly criticizing the group said she has heard “a lot of grousing about it from Jewish organizations.”

“It’s a really involved application both to be in the guide and to get money [through the Slingshot Fund], and there’s not a clear return,” she said.

Another Jewish professional echoed this concern, saying, “People like the recognition, but I’m not sure how many organizations have seen real gains or been able to leverage it into grants.”

Slingshot Day, which brings together groups and donors, also gets mixed reviews. Case said it’s “great to have the once-a-year opportunity to meet with counterparts — that is rare to nonexistent otherwise, especially for organizations not based in New York.”

But another professional said there’s a “mismatch” at the annual conference between the expectations of funders and the organizations seeking support.

“The organizations are coming to meet funders, but the funders are not coming to be met,” the professional said.

For the first time this year, Slingshot published two supplements to the list: one on “Disabilities & Inclusion,” in partnership with the Ruderman Foundation, and another on “Women & Girls,” in partnership with the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York. The aim was to broaden its community and attract public interest and donor support in these areas.

Also included are the guide’s 17 standard bearers, which include organizations such as Moishe House, a social and educational group for 20-something Jews that originated in Oakland, and Mechon Hadar, a liberal yeshiva in New York.

Newcomers to the list this year include City Harvest’s Kosher Initiative, a hunger-relief project in New York; NewGround: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change, of Los Angeles; Ramah Tikvah Network, a training program for professionals serving special-needs populations; and The Kitchen, an alternative congregation in San Francisco.

“Slingshot is a resource highlighting the breadth and depth of the Jewish community at this moment, and it is relied upon by doers and donors alike,” said Will Schneider, Slingshot’s executive director.

Meredith Lewis, director of operations at MyJewishLearning, which has made the top 50 for the past five years, said Slingshot — and particularly the annual conference — helped her group forge partnerships with others, such as the Institute for Southern Jewish Life and Keshet, an LGBT advocacy group.

“When we’re thinking about new partners to bring on, that’s the first place we look,” she said.