April 14, 2005
Failed Joshua Venture’s Serious Failings
Now that it has been "formally put to death and buried," as one of its grantees told me, I feel free to speak out about the Joshua Venture, a supposed breakthrough organization, subsidizing the ideas of nonprofit professionals who will be leading the next generation of Jewish life.
I don't know the intricacies of what happened that brought it to its final demise. I don't even know all the details of how it worked when it was alive. I do know that when I dealt with its 14 20-30-something-aged grantees last year, it was the worst professional experience I have had since my company, Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes, began servicing the Jewish and nonprofit world.
The purpose of the Joshua Venture is something like this:
It was founded by several foundations in Jewish life to enable young social entrepreneurs (that means nonprofit start-ups) to receive funding and two-years of support, seminars, tools (that means training), mentoring and advice.
What I found out it basically meant is that they chose a group of creative and brilliant young Jews, many whom were committed to building edgy nonprofits in the Jewish world, who were coddled, handed monetary support on a silver platter, catered to, spoiled and allowed to believe that they were privileged and beyond socially acceptable behavioral norms.
I learned these realities the hard way. Initially, I was impressed and excited to be working with the grantees of the Joshua Venture. I already knew some of them. Several were great young people doing extraordinary new work in Jewish life.
There was the founder of J-Dub Records, bringing a new, hip style of Jewish music touching the lives of thousands of young, uninvolved Jews, opening a door for them into a Judaism from which they felt distant and alienated.
There was the founder of the Ayecha Resource Organization, an organization promoting the diversity of Jewish life, founded by a firebrand young Jewish woman who was a proud African American.
There was Sharsheret, supporting the needs of young, Jewish women dealing with breast cancer, founded by a young cancer survivor.
There were performance artists, filmmakers, political activists, intellectuals and others, forming an eclectic mix of dynamic personalities, committed to building their generation's idea of a new Jewish world.
Joshua Ventures had contacted me about being one of their mentors. They asked if I could plan a full-day seminar for their grantees, teaching them the principles of marketing their causes for funding, advocacy and participation.
I was so excited to work with these people and help them further their ideas that I required my entire staff of 14 people to attend the seminar, positioning them to work as one-on-one mentors with each of the grantees. We prepared for weeks, working way beyond the hours for which Joshua Ventures was paying. I was happy to give the cause our time and a full day of 14 extraordinary professionals.
We arrived that morning to the seminar pumped up and ready to dive in with the grantees. I was prepared to work with them until midnight, if need be.
After an introduction from their professional, I stood up to convey our excitement at being with them and laid out the day's schedule. Next, the head of our account service team, took the floor to begin the first part of the morning's program.
He was just a few minutes into his presentation, when I noticed there was a buzz among the grantees. One young woman stands and says to me, "We believe your company is gender challenged. So far, we have heard from you and then another man. Why aren't the women presenting?"
Not yet clued in, I nicely explained that there would be many women presenting, but that the way it worked out, the first two presentations were from men.
We continued, and then there was another buzz and interruption.
"We don't like your methodology of presenting, as if you and your company are the center of knowledge. Your presentation model is outdated. You should be asking us what we know and then basing your presentation around our knowledge."
I stopped and looked at their professional and their lay leader. Neither said a word. I waited to see if any of the other grantees would open their mouths to balance the critics. None did.
At the break, their professional informed me that the grantees tended to "eat up each professional that presented to them." She further explained that this was par for the course.
(Today, as I recall this story, it reminds me of the report by Michael Jackson's housekeeper telling the press how the kids at Neverland were allowed to run amok, without any supervision.)
The criticisms continued to fly. Finally, having reached my limit, I told them how excited we were to work with them, but as I listened to them, I was concerned about the values and behavior of the community they wanted to build. I then said that I believed through the grants they received that they had been empowered by the program and that they misconstrued this empowerment to feel entitled.
"You are taking away our safe space," I was told by one of the grantees. "We're supposed to be given safe space."
As professionals, we stupidly continued to work with them through the entire day. We should have left. I should have publicly ripped up their check as a closing ceremony.
About two months later, I received a phone call from the professional, offering me a too-late and very weak apology. None of the funders, who had all heard about this fiasco, all of with whom I have worked very well over the years, ever called to ask about the experience.
The Joshua Venture raises many questions. There are numerous other programs in Jewish life, which are also handing the world on a silver platter to a new generation of Jews. The funders and their advisers have determined that free trips, free conferences, free hotel rooms, in addition to scholarships, fellowships, meetings with the rich and famous, study sessions with the brilliant, along with the awarding of cash, prizes and other untold privileges, not to mention the very deliberate creation of a new, selected elite class, are the methodology to perpetuate a vibrant and meaningful Jewish world.
And they may very well be right. But, several years into this new culture of privileged perpetuation, the late Joshua Venture is showing us that the methodology is also creating a sense of entitlement that is growing out of control.
I don't believe that the programs should stop. But I do believe they must include some courses or sessions on values and humility, while demanding that the participants carry certain levels of responsibility. They must also include codes of conduct and expectations of gratitude, as well as an understanding that their participation does not place them above the community -- or above amcha -- the people.
The foundations of the Jewish world that fund these programs have stepped up to the plate to infuse Jewish life with a vibrancy and relevancy in a way the Jewish world has never worked before. They are to be thanked and praised.
But as they pursue the evaluations of their funding -- as they all do, they must also question whether or not there is a critical issue of respect missing from the programs they are creating.
Gary Wexler is the owner of Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes based in Los Angeles.