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How to help Canadian Jewish start-ups

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Risa Alyson Cooper, founder and executive director of the grassroots organization Shoresh, teaching kids about the connections between Jewish values and environmental stewardship at the Kavanah Garden in Vaughan. (Photo courtesy of Shoresh)

The Canadian Jewish community is simply not setup to encourage visionary people to start new projects or organizations. At least that’s my takeaway after spending the last six years of my career collaborating with individual artists or small artist collectives. I have witnessed firsthand the tremendous obstacles to starting new Jewish projects in Canada. The reality is that there is little-to-no infrastructure in our communities to support Jewish start-ups. And that’s a big problem, because a vibrant community should foster new ideas and respond to changing needs, empowering Jewish leaders with original initiatives to make a go of it.

Here are four attainable steps to jump-starting the Jewish start-up scene in Canada:

1. Create micro-grants, seed-funding and incubators: These relatively modest approaches are de rigueur in Jewish communities across the United States. Here, these models are at best sporadic, but mostly unheard of. New organizations have a better chance of succeeding with even a small amount of capital, paired with mentorship, skills training and professional development. Such funding can even come from other Jewish non-profits that value building capacity and innovation in their sector. We need not wait on the federations to initiate. (Although, by all means.)

2. Take chances: My colleagues running grassroots Jewish projects largely face a rather conservative, risk-adverse donor base that champions the mainstream. But successful business-people-turned-philanthropists know that new ideas often take time to yield results. A community that values experimentation and allows for unknowns will be more dynamic, creative and exciting. It’s simply impossible to guarantee results or promise how many unaffiliated youth a program will engage before even launching.

3. Build the base: There is great opportunity for professionals who are not millionaires to support small, not-for-profit initiatives. A little truly goes a long way. Much could be motored forward in our communities if we galvanized a wider base and empowered more Jews to make modest but impactful contributions, saving grassroots groups from their precarious reliance on a few “angels.” The model of giving circles – where a group of like-minded individuals contribute to a pool and make their own allocations based on a set of shared priorities – is gaining momentum in the U.S. The Amplifier network currently links 120 Jewish giving circles, representing over 3,000 donors in five countries. Let’s add some Canadian giving circles to their list.

READ: SHOPPERS DRUG MART FOUNDER WAS A PIONEERING BUSINESSMAN AND PHILANTHROPIST

4. Beat the system: Canadian tax law operates at cross-purposes with the ambitions of Jewish entrepreneurs. Registering as a charitable organization is a costly, complicated process. American Jewish start-ups can approach a registered charity to act as a fiscal sponsor, providing administrative support and processing donations on behalf of their resident organization. A comparable model does not exist in Canada. This hardly harms the Jewish community alone. Restrictions in Canadian tax law put a cap on innovation in our country, saddling the non-profit sector as a whole. Short of lobbying for tax reform, we can establish much-needed solutions that work within the system. There is an unmatched opportunity to create an umbrella organization serving as a host for Jewish initiatives that lack charitable status. Such an organization would be a complete game-changer for Jewish Canada.

Like many creators in the Jewish community, I am unendingly grateful to the visionaries who have supported the work I do in Jewish arts and culture, either by making a donation (even when no tax receipt was on offer), partnering on projects to pool our meagre resources, giving graciously of their time or by finding loopholes to make the impossible possible. But beyond select dreamers and risk-takers, the Jewish community as a whole needs to rally around start-up projects to remain vital. “Grassroots” implies having fertile ground in which to plant and nourish an idea. Some will flourish, while others will wither. But all good ideas deserve a chance to blossom.