Think “Shark Tank,” but more Jewish and sans the aggressive antics of billionaire investor Mark Cuban, and you can appreciate the spirit of the SteelTree Fund.
There is, of course, a notable difference between the ABC reality show and the two-year-old philanthropic initiative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh: instead of business entrepreneurs showcasing their start-up products to celebrity investors, SteelTree sees local Jewish innovators pitching their educational and cultural programs to 24 young Jewish leaders seeking to invest in the future of Judaism.
The SteelTree Fund was conceived by Scott Tobe, 38, a financial adviser who runs his own firm and who has been active in the Federation since 2003. He launched SteelTree along with Drew Goldstein and Ben Moravitz in 2014. The idea was to give young adults the opportunity to be more hands-on in their philanthropy while promoting novel programs to strengthen the Jewish community.
SteelTree began with a core group of 14 young leaders — mostly between the ages of 30 and 45 — who contributed a minimum of $500 in their first year of membership to the Fund. Gifts increase to $1,000 in the second year of participation.
The group is now 24 members strong and diverse in its make-up. Orthodox bearded men sit at the table with Conservative and Reform Jewish men and women, meeting quarterly to review grant applications for new programs and mete out individual grants of up to $5,000, all for the sake of Jewish peoplehood.
This is how it works: After applications for grants have been reviewed by the SteelTree board, members rate them, and those with the highest score move on to the next round.
Here is where SteelTree gives a nod to “Shark Tank.” Those groups or individuals whose projects have made the first cut are invited to make presentations to the group. SteelTree members quiz the presenters on elements of their proposals, then privately discuss the merits of the projects and decide how much money, if any, each will receive.
On the night of Monday, Dec. 12 four projects were presented to the group: a communitywide baking event for children; a fledgling men’s group that provides social and educational programming; a young adult Shabbat retreat; and a communitywide learning initiative that will bring in an outside scholar for six study sessions.
After closed-door discussions, the SteelTree Board voted to fund two of the four projects, with each receiving $5,000 grants: Congregation Beth Shalom’s proposed Derekh Young Adult Retreat, pitched by Rabbi Jeremy Markiz; and Kulam: Pittsburgh Community Beit Midrash, the new communitywide learning initiative (see story on page 3), proposed by Shaare Torah member Peter Braasch.
SteelTree members would like to raise the group’s profile in the community to encourage more innovative grassroots project proposals, and will work with individuals and organizations to refine their applications in order to increase their chances of success, said Aaron Morgenstern, chair of the SteelTree board.
To that end, the board welcomed a new member Monday night, Benji Pollock, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh. While Pollock does not have an obligation to contribute monetarily to the Fund, he has been charged with “helping to spread the word about SteelTree,” Morgenstern said.
The board has formed an Innovation Subcommittee, which is working on increasing the number of applicants through better public relations and facilitation of the application process, and also improving the quality of the proposed innovations.
“SteelTree is growing,” Rabbi Ely Rosenfeld, a member of the Innovation Subcommittee, told the board. “Our goal is to inspire millennials to think out of the box and do programming for millennials.”
Using social media and apps to get the word out about SteelTree and make the application process easier may be a way to do just that, he said.
SteelTree would like to fund more “grassroots” ideas, added Tobe.
“We need to get the message out to individuals with great ideas.”
While grants are only made to projects connected to 501(c)(3) organizations, SteelTree members will work with individuals who have ideas for innovative programming to connect them with appropriate organizations to help run those programs, Tobe said.
After Monday’s allocations, SteelTree has remaining funds totaling $21,000 to be allotted by May 2017.
Individuals or groups with innovative ideas for programs that will strengthen the Jewish community can apply for a grant by going to jfedpgh.org/steeltree.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.