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Jewcy Interviews: Will Schneider of Slingshot

Will Schneider is the Director of Slingshot, a non-profit dedicated to strengthening innovation in Jewish life by developing next-generation funders and providing resources to leverage impact in the Jewish community.  Slingshot accomplishes this two-part mission via three interconnected activities, The Slingshot Guide, The Slingshot Fund, and Slingshot Day.

The annual Zagat-style Slingshot Guide, is a beautifully bound resource guidebook of the 50 most innovative Jewish organizations in North America [full-disclosure: Jewcy is featured in the 2010-2011 Guide, and JDub has been featured in the Guide for the past six years].  The Slingshot Fund invites 20- and 30-somethings to pool their financial resources and brainpower to create the Guide and allocate a limited number of grants to organizations featured in the Guide.  Participants in the Fund also undergo donor education and come together on Slingshot Day to announce the grant recipients.  The annual Slingshot Day gathering is perhaps the most innovative piece of the puzzle in that it brings together the funding community and non-profits to discuss new ideas and learn from some of the most creative minds in the secular non-profit world.

I sat down with Will after this year’s sold out Slingshot Day to find out how he ended up with such a cool job, what’s next from Slingshot, and what he’d do with $5 million dollars.

Jacob: What lead you to Jewish philanthropy?

Will: I wanted to work for an advertising agency most of the time I was in college, and I eventually interned with a large agency and didn’t really have the greatest experience.  I didn’t see where I was going with it, so I wandered a bit, but I was introduced to the Development Director for Stern at NYU and she thought I was a marketing person, so during my senior year I ended up working there like 30 hours a week. I worked on special events.  I worked on major gifts, and while another full time employee was on leave, I became the prospect researcher.  When I graduated, I got a job at Carnegie Hall on the major gifts team, and then I became a fundraising consultant.  I knew I really liked the world of philanthropy, but I never knew what sector, so consulting was perfect.  I worked for St. Vincent’s hospital.  I worked for a vocational center for the deaf and blind.  I worked for the Apollo.

Then in 2007, I met Sharna Goldseker from the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, who handed me a copy of an early edition of the Slingshot Guide, and – I actually remember this so clearly – I went home and looked at it and it was like a revelation.  Here is Jewish stuff that I really like.  I never had a real connection to Jewish life, so Jewish life never really occurred to me as an option for philanthropy.  So when I saw the position open up for Director a couple years ago, I jumped on it.

When you aren’t thinking about saving the world and getting others to save the world, what are you doing?

Will: My wife, Rachel, is an aspiring Broadway singer, so a lot of time at the theater, seeing her perform, and our friends perform.  Plus, watching “American Idol” is like a full time job.

Speaking of TV, have you ever seen the cancelled NBC show “The Philanthropist” based on the life of Bobby Sager?

Will: No, I still need to check that out.  I heard it was good.

It was really good – I definitely recommend it.  So what’s the plan for Slingshot in the next few years?

Will: I’m hoping to do webinars and book launch events in other cities, but there are no rules.  We’re eager for input on what works for people, and what I’d really like to be doing is supporting innovative Jewish life, and I think convening people like we do on Slingshot Day is part of that.  I don’t think anyone else is doing it enormously well, so we’d really like to lead the way.  The new nomination form for inclusion in the 2011-2012 Guide will be available shortly on our website so I’m going to be travelling around to places where we already get a lot of applications like San Francisco and Boston, and places where we see a lot of growth opportunity like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, and Chicago.  We can only put in the best of who applies, so we need to get the application into the right hands in order to get an accurate representation of what Jewish innovation looks like.

I imagine you are already getting a ton of applications though.  Do you feel like the Guide is limiting if you are only featuring 50 organizations?

Will: We want to actually feature the MOST innovative organizations, meaning that the organizations included are groundbreaking in responding to the changing needs of the Jewish community, and also really have an impact, strong leadership, and efficacy.  So when I go hand the Guide to a Jewish organization in Atlanta and say, “This is what innovation looks like, and you’re not listed here,” I’m also saying “You should be.”

What do you think about the level of innovation in the Jewish world?

Will: I think that there are many things the Jewish non-profit world is really pioneering.  It’s like what Jonathan Safran Foer said in the closing panel on Slingshot Day, “The best writers and the best Jewish writers might be the same list.”  This is often true of Jewish non-profits, but there’s always catch up and more to learn for the future.  The nice thing is that there are A LOT of people working on it.

Do you feel like philanthropists are the innovators driving this or is it really social entrepreneurs?

Will: In my experience, next generation philanthropists don’t want to do this alone.  They not only want to be part of collective giving, they also want to learn what innovative ideas are out there that can be developed.

I noticed that there were several high school students who participated in Slingshot Day this year.  How did they end up there and what do you think will be the differences for the NEXT-next-generation?

Will: The Jewish Teen Funders Network asked if there was room for them to come to Slingshot Day, so I put it to the Slingshot Fund members, and several stepped up and said they really wanted them there and they wanted to have a special session with them to discuss what they are “about to” experience.  The takeaway was that the NEXT-next-generation is going to be much more prepared to understand the landscape and responsibility of their generation.  I sat in on the session, and I have to say I was really impressed!  To elect at 14 or 15 years old to come to a day long conference about Jewish philanthropy, where you have to wear a suit, and sit still surrounded by people you don’t know is amazing in and of itself, but they were really listening and participating.  They know what’s going on.

So, if I gave you $5 million and said that you had to invest it in one issue area what would it be?

Will: When I worked in Development at Carnegie Hall and a potential donor would ask, “Why should I give money to you instead of cancer research?” I learned that the right answer to that question is “you need to give to both.”  I’ve also consulted for health care organizations and so I think that would be part of it, but my answer is that the world needs “both.”

Where is Will Schneider in 20 years?

Will: I think it’s important that someone young run Slingshot, so when I’m nearly 50 I imagine I’ll be doing something else, but I’ll check in with you and we can discuss.

The 2010-2011 Slingshot Guide is also available as a PDF download here.

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