Inside Look: The Center for Innovation & Social Impact at 92Y in New York

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Thursday, 24 July 2014 16:47 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Our partnership with the United Nations Foundation, Mashable, the Gates Foundation, and the UN Development Programme, for example, have allowed our annual Social Good Summit to expand to over 100 countries, including some of the world’s most under-resourced,” explained Asha Curran, Director of the Center for Innovation & Social Impact at 92Y. In an in-depth interview, we discussed the origins, evolution and impact of the center, along with the many leadership lessons she learned along the way. 

Rahim Kanani: Tell me a little bit about the founding of the Center for Innovation and Social Impact at 92Y.

Asha Curran: 92Y is a community and cultural center in New York that is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year.  Part of the reason that we have remained a vibrant, relevant institution for all those years is that we remain firmly rooted in our core Jewish values – education, family, community, civic responsibility, dialogue, and inclusion – while at the same time looking toward the future. Innovation at 92Y has taken many forms over the years, and today, with technology that connects people around the world in a way our founders never dreamed of, we are re-imagining the community center for a global, 21st-century community.  For us, that means deepening our commitment to our local community while also working to scale our core values, using digital tools and global partnerships to share our programs and initiatives with a growing audience. We're very lucky to have tremendously creative leadership from our board in this respect. They pushed us to think bigger, and helped to provide the resources needed to experiment. In anticipation of the 2012 election, we developed 92Y AmericanConversation, 92Y’s first program to include content created for a digital audience and to expand outside partnerships to create content. Our goal was to champion the best in thought-provoking but civil dialogue during a rancorous campaign, and we first partnered with Harvard Kennedy School to create short, informative videos about everything from Iran to environmental policy.  The program has continued beyond the campaign, thanks to partners like Stanford University and Newsweek, who continue to lend their expertise and allow us to bring it to new audiences. 

92Y AmericanConversation really served as a catalyst for us to think bigger and to focus more resources on innovation – and eventually, to create the Center for Innovation and Social Impact. Essentially, the mandate for the Center is to respond nimbly to a rapidly evolving technological landscape, creating new kinds of programming ideas to serve our growing communities, both in New York and around the world.  The Center is 92Y’s hub for incubating and experimenting with new and non-traditional programs, and exploring opportunities through technology, partnerships and collaboration to engage broad new constituencies. We create and strengthen partnerships across sectors – with nonprofits and for-profits, educational institutions and media outlets (other centers of community, essentially).  We also leverage the multi-disciplinary nature of 92Y, leading initiatives that draw on the expertise of our programming teams in the arts and ideas, music, health and wellness, and more—initiatives like our 7 Days of Genius festival. We often say that the Center is like a start-up within 92Y, infusing an entrepreneurial spirit throughout a much larger institution.   

It’s important to remember that, while the scale is now far more ambitious and the content delivery tools radically different than what they were at any time during 92Y’s history, the mission and values are very much the same. We spark conversations about big ideas, we think about how we can improve the world, we encourage strong community and fellowship, and we think in future-tense ways about leadership. Those things have always been true at 92Y.

Kanani: What kinds of events and programs do you host?

Curran: As an incubator within the institution, our programming is pretty diverse, and often involves collaborations among departments at 92Y as well as partnerships with other entities. We focus on initiatives that bring our core values to people and communities far beyond the walls of our building, and we try to create a context for people to tell stories about their own ideas, their own values.  We also think about how we can make it possible for more people to participate in events that are going on in the building – whether that’s via livestream, global meetups, or soliciting content directly from our audience.  And we focus on new ways of empowering people through community.   

These are a few of our programs that I’m particularly excited about right now: 

We are thrilled to be working with the New York City Economic Development Corporation on two professional Fellowships – NYC Venture Fellows and NYC Fashion Fellows. The Venture Fellows brings together CEOs and founders of successful New York start-ups and established business leaders, who serve as mentors.  These emerging leaders are integral to NYC’s economic and cultural vibrancy, and it's an honor for 92Y to play a part in informing their thinking around critical issues as they build their businesses--issues like the evolution of work culture and the integration of sustainability, social impact, and diversity into the DNA of their companies.  We are currently working on launching a new fellowship for emerging female leaders, to give women the support, tools and resources they need to continue their momentum into top leadership positions (where women are still sorely underrepresented).  The Fellowships are a great example of some of 92Y’s most basic values and core competencies – education, intellectual engagement and community (fellowship, after all, is the very reason 92Y was first founded) – reimagined for the realities of today’s economy to enrich the lives of the fellows, the mentors, and the city.  

Another new initiative that has been incredibly exciting is GivingTuesday, an annual day of giving that falls the day after Cyber Monday, and which 92Y created two years ago, in partnership with the UN Foundation. The response to GivingTuesday has really been overwhelming. It has been so inspiring to watch it grow, and to see so many people rally around not only the idea of giving, but the act of giving. It has exceeded our expectations by virtually every measure, not only leading to a 270% increase in online donations on that day since its inaugural year in 2011, but also attracting more than 10,000 global partners so far and creating a new grassroots movement around giving.  In a completely different direction, the Center for Innovation has been working closely with 92Y’s Jewish Life team to create the “92Y Shababa Network.”  This is an extension of our Shababa community, an innovative, intergenerational approach to Jewish life that incorporates the arts, puppetry and Jewish tradition to inspire families and strengthen their community. Shababa has attracted hundreds of families here in New York City, and we wanted to find a way to facilitate the joy and community we see here in communities elsewhere. 

Kanani: Personally, what kinds of topics are you most passionate about, and does that passion translate into the kind of programming you try to produce for 92Y? 

Curran: Broadly, I'm most engaged with issues around social justice, collaboration, and leadership, which are very much in tune with 92Y’s mission; from my perspective, 92Y is in a position to make an impact and to be a thought leader in those areas. Our mission statement as a Jewish institution includes the mandate to “repair the world” and to reach out to communities in need. We've done that as a local community center for 140 years; today, we’re building on that history and experience to think ambitiously about global issues and to contribute to the process of creating solutions.  

Collaboration with organizations across multiple sectors has been especially key in this area. Our partnership with the United Nations Foundation, Mashable, the Gates Foundation, and the UN Development Programme, for example, have allowed our annual Social Good Summit to expand to over 100 countries, including some of the world’s most under-resourced. There has been a similar expansion of GivingTuesday across borders, made possible largely through the leveraging of partner networks. Collaborations with partners like Harvard and Stanford Universities, Politico, Salon, and Newsweek, both enrich the programming itself and allow it to reach many more people. And we have many more in the pipeline. 

Kanani: What are some of the challenges associated with leading these initiatives and how have you overcome them? 

Curran: Trying new things always involves a certain amount of risk, and inevitably, not everything you try succeeds. But the willingness and ability to tolerate both risk and failure are critical to invention and innovation. 92Y as an institution understands that, and our leadership encourages experimentation and ambition. When I feel daunted and/or humbled by the scale of what we’re trying to achieve, I remind myself that that’s a good sign. 

An ongoing challenge is measuring impact, and to address that challenge, we have worked with some of the most forward-thinking (and philanthropically-minded) organizations in this area, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Case Foundation, and Stanford PACS. They have all been extremely helpful to us as we scale various projects, from GivingTuesday to the Social Good Summit to our Seven Days of Genius festival. We benefit enormously from collaboration with these organizations, which share our commitment to sharing best practices and building capacity across networks and sectors.

Lastly, I’d say that as content creators, we're operating in a rapidly and constantly evolving landscape. What works and what doesn’t, what adds value, what goes viral and why, what makes money and how – these are all questions that content creators across the board (publishers, media outlets, cultural centers) are asking right now. The answers, when you have them at all, also change rapidly, so it forces us all to be on a never-ending learning curve. The flip side of that is it’s a great incentive to be adventurous and to experiment, and at 92Y, we try to foster that kind of spirit in every employee, every day.

Kanani: From a leadership perspective, what kinds of lessons have you learned when it comes to putting on such a wide range of socially conscious content and programming?

Curran: Our work is driven by 92Y’s values – education, family, community, civic engagement, dialogue, and inclusion. Those values provide clear guideposts. I ask myself certain questions about any given initiative: Is it serving our community? Is it authentic and relevant? Is it bold? Is it contributing to the sustainability and health of 92Y overall? And as a leader of a team: is it helping to strengthen and develop the skills of my team members? Will they be better leaders as a result of their work on this project, and is it helping them to tap into and define their own passions and ambitions?    If the answer to any of those is no, then it’s an opportunity to recalibrate or course correct.

As Director of the Center for Innovation & Social Impact, Asha Curran is spearheading the effort to broaden the depth and reach of 92Y’s renowned programming by leveraging the power of new and social media, partnerships and collaboration within 92Y’s diverse programming centers to strengthen and extend the reach of 92Y’s core values – intellectual exploration and dialogue, community, thought leadership and innovation as a driver of social change.