Among the most rewarding experiences of working in philanthropy is engaging with leaders and visionaries who are tackling some of the world's most daunting challenges. At Grantmakers for Effective Organizations' strategic co-funding conference last month, I had a chance to talk with Jean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation, about their commitment to make big bets, innovate, learn from failure, collaborate and do it all with a sense of urgency. This commitment ultimately shaped their Be Fearless Campaign which hopes to reshape the grantmaking landscape. This post summarizes my conversation with Jean about the Be Fearless principles.
Fifty years from now, I think we'll look back and say, 'I can't believe we thought the way to change the world was to write grants to organizations.' It doesn't mean writing grants won't be part of it -- it's a really important part -- but it's merely one of the oars we can put in the water as we think about changing the world.
With this thought-provoking observation, Jean Case made it clear that she believes if grantmakers are really serious about changing the world, they're going to have to make some changes themselves. The changes she urges through the Be Fearless campaign include to "reach beyond your bubble," "make failure matter," "experiment early and often," "make big bets" and "let urgency conquer fear."
"Reach Beyond Your Bubble"
Innovation happens at the intersections, so in addition to looking for natural partners, real game-changing partnerships often involve unusual suspects, according to Jean:
Who's looking at things a little differently than you are but could maybe come and play a role and add some unique value to what you do? At the Case Foundation, we try to have partners for almost anything that we do, and we try to make these cross-sector partnerships -- with public partners, corporate partners, nonprofit partners and citizens in the general public.
Bringing multiple grantmakers together to collaborate can be difficult, so it stands to reason that it's even more complex to engage in joint work with groups from across multiple sectors. Grantmakers have an important role to play in both leading and following examples of collaboration. While grantmakers often advise grantees that they should collaborate, I asked Jean why funders have a difficult time following their own advice.
Jean observed that much of the difficulty stems out of desire to receive credit, with the irony being that those who are willing to collaborate are those most likely to achieve success worthy of accolades. Case:
If you're mission-focused, mission-forward, outcome/impact-oriented, there really isn't room to grab the headlines for your personal organization. If you do something really remarkable and transformative, you're all going to be lifted up, much higher, much further than any one initiative that you aim to do alone and try to wrap headlines around.
"Make Failure Matter" and "Experiment Early and Often"
The GEO community is committed to trying to embrace learning from both successes and failures (as evidenced by the Fail Fest we'll be hosting at our upcoming Learning Conference). Yet, it can be difficult to get grantmakers to talk candidly about their failures.
Jean shared that real innovation involves both experimentation and failure:
Have you really seen innovation without risk taking? We're not talking recklessness here; we're talking calculated risk. If you're following innovation, you're going to find a lot of failures spilled along the road to success.
Additionally, if we are going to support grantees taking part in these experiments -- then we have to give our grantees reassurance that 'of course this may not work out, and we want you to know we're not going to lose respect for you. We're trying something big here.
Often when [members of the community you're trying to serve] are out of the room and not a part of the dialogue, you frame what you think as a beautiful plan, and then it all falls apart. I think the answer is just engagement. If the communities understand that you're going to try to do something big that comes with risks, and they're bought into it, I think that you will see a greater impact and a higher probability of success.
In 'America's Giving Challenge,' we made a commitment before we got started that we were going to publish our findings and our lessons no matter what happened. If we were successful, we were going to do it. If we fell on our face, we were still going to do it.
"Make Big Bets" and "Let Urgency Conquer Fear"
At the Case Foundation, when we find ourselves backing away from something, we ask, 'What's guiding our thinking and feelings?' Sometimes we find that it's fear creeping in and controlling what we want to do.
This simple exercise keeps them focused and moving forward.
Jean pointed to anti-malaria activists collectively setting a 2015 deadline for the eradication of the disease as a big bet that is leading to a better-coordinated, more efficient effort. She said this type of "big bet" means that even while some individuals in the movement will not see a big change in their day-to-day tasks, they can know that they are a crucial player in the overall success, which is motivating.
To conclude, Jean shared some reflections on her early days as a philanthropist that are both humble and inspiring:
When I first began my work in philanthropy, one might have said I was arrogant because I thought, 'I've done startups and led them into big, successful businesses. I get this.' Five minutes into my work with the foundation, I realized that I didn't get it at all. Being effective at bringing about change is much, much harder than building and running businesses. Let's just acknowledge this is really hard stuff we're trying to do. You're not alone -- no matter where you sit and what sector and what organization -- because the world is changing so rapidly in so many ways. We are a disrupted world. So let's just keep learning together, and the only way we can get smarter is to hear stories of others and what they're learning and what they're doing right and what they're failing at. I think if we make a commitment together to be in that honest dialogue we'll all go further, faster.
Here's a video of the plenary session with Jean Case from GEO's Strategic Co-Funding: A Grantmaker Convening (The black and white video is less of an artistic expression than a "make failure matter" learning opportunity for the AV technicians).