Be Fearless Spotlight: Ashoka

This Spotlight is a part of a special blog series by the Case Foundation featuring Be Fearless stories from the field. Follow along with us as we meet people and learn about organizations that are taking risks, being bold and failing forward in their efforts to create transformative change in the social sector. This Spotlight is authored by Laxmi Parthasarathy (@laxmisarathy), Director of Global Media and Framework Change Partnerships at Ashoka.

How does a 35-year-old organization stay nimble, innovate and create meaningful change? By setting out on an audacious journey to redefine leadership. Over the last three decades, Ashoka has sparked the dreams of entrepreneurs from around the world and today it continues to be a fearless trailblazer by making big bets focused on helping society see that the world has shifted from patterns of repetition to a world defined by change. The organization is currently advancing a new model for leadership in “framework change”—changing individual mindsets at a large scale and ultimately changing behaviors or norms across society as a whole. As our founder, Bill Drayton notes, Ashoka’s role is to ensure that this change is for the good of all.

From Fellows to Framework Change

In the early 1980s, Ashoka set out to ensure that social entrepreneurship would be studied in universities, would become a common model for philanthropy and would eventually become a new norm for the civil society sector. The program proved to be successful and Ashoka is well-known around the world for its robust Fellowship program that includes more than 3,000 Fellows from 89 countries. We could have stopped there—satisfied with the impact of this program, but we took pause to assess our potential for impact. We knew there was even more that we could do as an organization and network. Today, we are advancing a new framework change. We are helping society envision that more people than ever before can contribute to change. An integral part of this work is ensuring that generations of young people develop cognitive empathy-based ethics and practice the skills of leadership, teamwork and changemaking.

This shift, even for an organization that specializes in identifying, nurturing and supporting changemaking, was not easy, and we have learned a few lessons along the way.

Lesson #1: Building a decentralized, but integrated organization

Electing Fellows in 89 countries and operating offices in more than 30 cities required a shift in Ashoka’s own internal leadership and organizational structure from solo entrepreneurship to collaborative entrepreneurship. Driven by the urgency to ensure another generation of young people would not grow up without being prepared for the 21st century, my colleagues and I took a courageous step to shake things up and build what we called the “Ashoka hub structure.” Rather than opening more country offices and increasing operating costs, Ashoka began to hire framework change leaders in five regional hubs to ensure that our focus was on an integrated global goal. This shift in our structure caused some unease within the organization as it was different from anything we had done before, but ultimately, the organization’s leadership encouraged the urgency of our work to conquer the fear of something new.

Lesson #2: Leading from the middle

It was important to start implementing changes from the middle of the organization to ensure that our vision ‘Everyone a Changemaker’ was not just a slogan, but rather an ethos. Working with staff other than leadership was integral, as they would be the ones to experiment, implement and authentically lead the uptake of new ideas in the organization. Ashoka has always hired highly entrepreneurial staff—we ask tough questions, challenge the status quo and are keen to experiment—so trusting our colleagues to help guide this organizational shift was a natural progression for an organization of changemakers. For example, staff in various regions understood how to incorporate cultural context, local partnerships and leverage existing programs in their own unique ways.

Lesson #3: Team of teams collaboration

For many years, Ashoka’s focus was on supporting systems-changing social entrepreneurs (Ashoka Fellows). Thousands of Fellows later, the insights we have gained and the collaborations we have launched are what position our network to focus on framework change.

Ensuring that cognitive empathy-based ethics are recognized as critical for navigating today’s world defined by rapid change, we brought together a group of Ashoka Fellows who had this expertise and who had been working with children and young people for many years. We didn’t stop there; we began to find, elect and connect a new community of change leaders within primary and elementary schools around the world, branding them as Changemaker Schools. This was one of the most profound and significant changes to the core business of our organization. Along with natural self-doubt about whether we were on the right path, many would ask what business we had working in education. We knew, however, that our commitment to our big bet and the collaborators we were bringing together would propel us forward as we continued experimenting, learning from failure and refining our processes.

As our founder, Bill Drayton says, “a team is not a team unless everyone is an initiatory player.” We had a clear methodology for spreading the idea of social entrepreneurship and are applying this again. We are collaborating with Ashoka Fellows, corporations, media, entrepreneurs and a new community of educators as our “team of teams.” A team of teams structure meant breaking down silos between programs within Ashoka and recognizing that every new project ahead would require a new set of team members—staff and partners—with unique contributions to make along the way.

Managing to redefine an organization’s leadership in the social sector required creativity, an entrepreneurial spirit, empathy and distributed leadership; however, Ashoka’s methodology used to strategically tip the idea of social entrepreneurship provided the foundation and courage to Be Fearless.

Top 10 #BeFearless Olympic Quotes

This post on Olympic quotes was written by Isabella Robledo, Case Foundation intern.

Every two years, the world comes together in a celebration of the breadth and height of human physical achievement at the Summer and Winter Olympics. Often the narrative surrounding these talented athletes from around the world is one of “determination” and “persistence.” In fact, many articles about individual Olympians will cite the “10,000 hour rule,” explaining that what sets these athletes apart is not only talent, but also a single-minded focus and persistence in this one major area of their life. Today, we recognize that in addition to these athletes’ commitment to their sports, to become truly great at anything also requires one to Be Fearless. And this is a life lesson from which we can all learn.

Take Gabby Douglas, for example, a world-class gymnast who took a giant leap at the young age of 14 by moving across the country to train and pursue her dream of competing in the Olympics. Her perseverance and fearlessness paid off in 2010 when she won a gold medal for the USA, and again this year as she and her “Final Five” teammates repeated as Olympic champions in women’s gymnastics by an historic margin. In an interview after her 2010 victory, Douglas noted that before the competition she kept repeating to herself, “Believe, don’t fear, believe.”

In the spirit of Olympic Fearlessness, here are our top 10 Be Fearless Olympic quotes.

  1. “I’d rather regret the risks that didn’t work out than the chances I didn’t take at all.” – Simone Biles, five-time Olympic medal-winning gymnast


  1. “Don’t put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the further you get.”
    – Michael Phelps, most decorated Olympian of all time, with 28 medals for swimming


  1. “Failure I can live with. Not trying is what I can’t handle!”
    – Sanya Richards-Ross, four-time Olympic gold medal-winning track and field star

RichardsRoss (1)

  1. “We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.”
    – Wilma Rudolph, American runner and three-time Olympic gold medalist


  1. “We have the can-do factor, and us doing what we do I think inspires people to just try that little bit harder, whether they are able-bodied or disabled.”
    — Lee Pearson, ten-time Gold Paralympian Dressage competitor


  1. “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
    – Muhammed Ali, Olympic gold medalist boxer

Ali (1)

  1. “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take a game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
    – Michael Jordan, two-time Olympic basketball gold medalists


  1. “I don’t run away from a challenge when I am afraid, instead I run towards it because the only way to escape fear is to trample it beneath your feet.”
    – Nadia Comaneci, five-time Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast

Comaneci1 (1)

  1. “I’m scared of failure all the time, but not enough to stop trying.”
    – Ronda Rousey, 2008 Olympic Judo bronze medalist


  1. “There’s always a point where you get knocked down. But I draw on what I’ve learned on the track: If you work hard, things will work out.”
    – Lolo Jones, Olympic hurdler and four-time gold medal winner

Jones1 (1)

Feeling inspired? If you’re ready to begin your own Be Fearless journey start by downloading our free Be Fearless Action Guide and Case Studies.

Header photo credit: Flickr user Tony Hisgett, used via Creative Commons.

Be Fearless Spotlight: Mama Hope

This Spotlight is a part of a special blog series by the Case Foundation featuring Be Fearless stories from the field. Follow along with us as we meet people and learn about organizations that are taking risks, being bold and failing forward in their efforts to create transformative change in the social sector. This Spotlight is authored by Katrina Boratko, Communications Manager at Mama Hope.

Mama Hope was built from love. In 2006, our founder Nyla suddenly lost the person closest to her in the world—her mother Stephanie. While she was ill, Stephanie and Nyla made plans to travel to Kenya and meet a young man she had helped sponsor through school and corresponded with since he was a boy. Unfortunately, Stephanie was never able to make that trip; but in a twist of fate Nyla was posted in a United Nations placement near to his village soon after her mother’s death. When she arrived, Nyla was greeted by the whole community singing Amazing Grace and holding a service for her mother. As it turns out, Stephanie had done more than just sponsor one boy. She had been holding small fundraisers in the living rooms of her Marin, CA, friend’s homes to help support a women’s business group in the community. Nyla learned that the humble investment she made from afar had truly transformed the lives of the women, their families and the whole community.

When the money Stephanie raised was put into the right hands, a small investment made a huge impact, the likes of which Nyla hadn’t seen working at government organizations and multinational NGOs. That day she learned the first rule of Mama Hope: the communities we work with know what they need and our biggest job is to listen. Nyla decided to take her love for her mother and build an organization that listens—Mama Hope. Love is the common connection that runs through everything we do; from our partnerships to our Global Advocates to our Stop the Pity campaign. To us, to Be Fearless is to choose love over fear, disconnection, apathy and hate.

Working from a place of love comes with its own unique set of risks. Every day we make huge bets on the power of connection and the value of human capital. We believe that every human has the capacity to become a global leader, regardless of his or her birth—and we treat everyone in our sphere according to that belief. When Mama Hope connects with a community leader, our first questions are: “What is your vision?” and “How can we support you in achieving your goals?” We then align our team and resources. We have built a relationship of mutual trust and true respect with all of our partners, and we credit this relationship for all of our successes.

In 2011, we experimented with a new approach to scale the reach and impact of the program—we introduced a Global Advocate Program (GAP). The GAP is a rigorous nine-month training program for social entrepreneurs. Our Advocates each commit to raising at least $20,000 for a sustainable project initiated by one of our partner communities, and they travel to the field to live and work directly with our partners to help bring the projects to life. We take a risk with every Advocate we train—investing money, training and staff time into an individual with the expectation that they will rise to the fundraising challenge and open their hearts to our partners. This risk has reaped massive rewards: since 2011, we’ve worked with 64 Advocates who have raised over $1.3M to fund over 60 projects that, working in tandem with local experts, employing local builders and using local resources, have improved the health, education, food, water security and livelihoods of over 150,000 people in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana and Guatemala.

We are not building projects that will only help people get from one day the next, but that will help our partner communities thrive for generations. And beyond the impact numbers above, there is a much deeper ripple effect in communities that grounds our work and was brought to life in a fabulous chalkboard drawing by a staff member in our Queen Elizabeth Academy (QEA) partnership in Mlali, Tanzania.

MamaHope Inline photo

“Our benefits aren’t easily seen right now, like they would be if someone came and said “here, take these clothes” or “take this money”, and you took them. We don’t give things out like this because our primary focus is giving education to these children. Later, they will be employed and they will return that benefit here, just like Kilines (the founder & director of QEA) did. She wanted to help her own community. The benefits of her education have returned home, and many people have felt them. And when these children study with the education that they get here, later when they find work they will also return that benefit home. One might start a health center, another might start some kind of industry and employ many people, another might start something else. You can’t do this without education. This school is producing something with benefits that will last from generation to generation.”

Mama Hope’s goal is to eliminate global poverty through inclusive entrepreneurship and by creating a global network of organizations bound by collaboration. We think that many organizations and companies are too restricted by their silos: nonprofit, for-profit, brands, media, grassroots, multi-national and community-based. We believe that we will see true change in this world when we all reach beyond our bubbles and work together across cultures, borders, profit margins and mission statements. We believe that when we focus on what makes us similar over what makes us different and hold each other’s dignity in the highest regard, we can shake off the ropes of competition and ego that hold us back. We believe in the power of an individual to change the world, and we believe every person can—and must—in order for us to rebuild a thriving planet. We believe that all of this is only possible if we are fearless with our love.

Feeling inspired? If you’re ready to begin your own Be Fearless journey start by downloading our free Be Fearless Action Guide and Case Studies.

Confronting Risk in Today’s Nonprofit

Over the last four years, the Case Foundation has been actively sharing and championing a framework of principles under the title, Be Fearless. Based on research highlighting key factors that often lead to transformative social change, it calls on individuals and organizations to Be Fearless in their vision, efforts and commitment to their cause. Throughout this period, I’ve met thousands of changemakers from across the country who have embraced the concept and are actively creating change in their communities on everything from poverty and education to climate change and impact investing.

Today, I am delighted to announce that we are debuting a redesigned Be Fearless Hub to enhance the user experience and make more accessible the free tools and resources that our community has requested. The new Hub includes a step-by-step guide to help your organization assess and navigate change, and a set of case studies that showcase some best-in-class changemakers putting the Be Fearless principles into practice—including three exclusive new case studies featuring:

  • Community Voices Heard – empowering New York City’s poorest residents through a radical, strategic coalition.
  • Propeller – restructuring its core program to more quickly move the needle on outcomes for food, water, health and education in New Orleans.
  • Sanergy – developing a new model for addressing a global health challenge that would transform the lives and livelihoods of millions in Africa’s slums.

As I reflect on our own efforts to Be Fearless, I have come to realize that even with resources like the Framework for Action, the case studies and hands-on training through workshops, the idea of risk, and the act of risk taking, remains a paralyzing factor for many. I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The word itself is such a loaded one, often filled with negative or dangerous connotation—“risk-taker,” “risky business,” “credit risk” and “risqué” (the French origin). But the research that led to the Be Fearless principles suggests another perspective when measuring and embracing risk, and that is one of: “no risk, no reward.” In other words, innovations and breakthroughs usually require taking a risk. So given this, is there a way to de-risk, risk?

One way to approach this concept is similar to how private companies view research and development. The goal of R&D in this context is to experiment and identify potential new products in a safe space—despite the fact that the return on investment is uncertain. Suddenly, experimenting, piloting and producing a minimum viable product don’t seem so daunting. It is the cost of doing good business. And what once was a disappointing failure now becomes an opportunity to learn. Expenses to cover costs on the development of products that never make it to market are now seen as an investment where the organization can apply its learnings and ultimately save costs in the long run.

Indeed, there are many different ways to look at risk and R&D from an organizational structure. At the Case Foundation, we’re embracing risk in pursuit of catalyzing our two major movements—inclusive entrepreneurship and impact investing. As we seek to increase the number of women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color, we know that access to social networks is a key ingredient to success. What we don’t know, because of limited data, is whether these entrepreneurs have higher success rates as cohorts of exclusively dedicated accelerators (women-only or of-color-only) or not. While we consider commissioning research, we decided to “be the data” by partnering with a young start-up PowerMoves, an accelerator for entrepreneurs of color, and test our theory of change to see what works.

Similarly, on the impact investing front, we are embracing risk in pursuit of a big bet regarding what’s needed to tip more investors from good intent to action. Coming this fall, we will launch in beta form a data visualization tool that maps the connections between investors, companies and funds in the impact investing ecosystem. Nothing like it exists in the market yet, but our work to date (research, interviews, partner collaboration) and that from the sector suggests there is a need for it. But who knows—the feedback and iteration stage could reveal some real surprises, surprises that we value as opportunities (not risks!) of doing our business better.

Risk, in these two contexts, is elevated into a purposeful strategy and opportunity to innovate and try new things, without the assurance of a positive outcome. Imagine what could be possible if the social sector invested in a continuous cycle of R&D? What if you got regular feedback on your programs, could test new ideas with your target audience before implementing them at full scale or allowed for iterations of your product over time in order to deliver the best version possible? What kind of impact could you help create?

So I ask you now, what are you doing within your own organization? Have you developed your own form of R&D or institutionalized processes for innovation? Or are you perhaps just getting started and looking for ways to take the first step? If you are ready to embrace risk and reach the next level of changemaking, then I encourage you to check out the Framework for Action, case studies and other free resources on the Be Fearless Hub. It is incumbent upon all of us empowered changemakers to take risks, be bold and fail forward, so let’s take the next step together, now.

Don’t forget to share your experiences with us via Twitter using @CaseFoundation and #BeFearless. We hope you’ll join us!

Be Fearless Spotlight: Barbara Van Dahlen

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Barbara Van Dahlen for over a decade, so it came as no surprise to me when she was named to TIME’s 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Her energy and enthusiasm for her work are contagious, but perhaps the thing I admire most about Barbara is how she and the organizations she leads embody the Be Fearless principles we champion here at the Case Foundation. Her work with Give an Hour and Campaign to Change Direction aims to change the culture in America around mental health—a bold and audacious goal to be sure.

I recently had the chance to sit down with Barbara and ask her a few questions about her groundbreaking work. Below, she shares how the Be Fearless principles are influencing the efforts of both Given an Hour and the Campaign to Change Direction.

Jean: How do you and the team you work with view Being Fearless? 

Barbara: For us, Being Fearless means taking on whatever challenge is necessary in order to ensure that those who serve our country—and their families—have the mental health support and care they deserve. It means being bold in our decision to take on the heavy lift of changing the culture of mental health in America through our new collective impact effort, the Campaign to Change Direction, so that all Americans are free to value their emotional well-being just as they do their physical well-being.

Being fearless means looking beyond what is safe and easy to what is necessary—it means using our skills, expertise and creativity to find solutions and reduce suffering in our world.

Jean: One of the Be Fearless principles is to “Make Big Bets and Make History.” What “big bets” have you and your team made, and how have they paid off?

Barbara: Three years ago, after the Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut, I was asked to take a look at how we might address the mental health needs in our country. After pulling together a group of trusted colleagues to study the issue, we came to the conclusion that the greatest barrier to mental health care in America is our culture. We just don’t value emotional well-being in this country—not the way we do physical well-being. As a result, people who are suffering from emotional pain, trauma or mental health conditions often feel weak or broken—they feel shame and guilt and they don’t seek care. More people die by suicide than in car accidents—we can do better.

Give an Hour has accepted the challenge, and the privilege, of leading a national collective impact effort to change the culture of mental health in America. The Campaign to Change Direction launched last March. I was thrilled to have you, Jean, join us for the launch and set the stage with an inspiring speech about the power of collective impact efforts, and to have First Lady Michelle Obama close our event with a call to action to all Americans to join this movement.

Our “big bet” that the country is ready for this type of cultural shift is paying off. Thanks to the generous support of our Founding Members, including the Case Foundation, we have already far surpassed our initial goals. We began with 50 partners and a plan to reach 30 million Americans in five years. We have already introduced the campaign to 176 million Americans and now have over 180 partners with communities stepping up to help all over the country. Culture change takes time, but we are on our way!

Jean: Can you tell us about a time when you let a sense of urgency drive your objectives? 

Barbara: That is a very interesting question. I felt a sense of urgency about addressing the unmet mental health needs in our society long before I made the decision to walk away from my successful clinical practice to launch Give an Hour. I have seen the impact of mental health challenges, substance abuse and trauma on adults, on children and on families. I have also seen so many success stories—people who were struggling emotionally and found healing, health and support.

We don’t have all of the answers in the mental health arena—any more than we have the answers to cure all of the physical diseases and conditions in the world. But if we break through the cultural barriers that leave people feeling ashamed or embarrassed about their emotional functioning and mental health needs, and if we encourage everyone to pay attention to and value their emotional well-being, we will reduce suffering, save relationships and save resources. Here in America and globally, the human cost and the economic impact of unaddressed mental health care is massive.

I don’t mind feeling this sense of urgency. It keeps me focused and it fuels my passion.

Jean: You told us a bit about the bold goal that you are working toward—to change the culture of mental health in America. Can you share more about that and how developing it changed your team’s approach to changemaking, if at all? 

Barbara: Our goal, to change the culture of mental health in America, is bold, and the challenge is huge. It actually took some time for some of our staff members to get comfortable with the concept. I think some were concerned that taking on such an audacious goal might take away from our focus on providing free mental health care to those who serve in the military and their families. Our staff members—many of whom have a connection to the military themselves—are incredibly dedicated to our focus on those who serve and their families. I understand why they were a bit reluctant. And some staff members were worried about our ability to staff and manage such a large undertaking, which is another understandable reaction.

Over time, however, our staff has coalesced around the power of this opportunity. They understand that culture change is absolutely necessary if we want to prevent suffering and improve well-being. They understand that we can’t ensure that those in need, military or civilian, receive the mental health care that they deserve if they are reluctant, unwilling or afraid to acknowledge or seek that help. Changing our culture—so that we all value our emotional well-being, so that we all talk comfortably about our emotional challenges—is the only way to succeed with our lofty mission.

And in terms of taking on something this massive… if not us, who? We will move forward aggressively, smartly and with as many partners as we can engage to make this heavy lift possible.

Jean: I love that you mentioned partnerships there. Are you engaging in any unlikely partnerships in an effort to reach beyond your bubble? 

Barbara: There is a wise psychiatrist from India, Vikram Patel, who talks about “mental health for all by involving all.” We are building a very big tent to drive and support the culture change we seek to achieve.

We have always been an organization that grows organically. By that I mean that we tend to focus on building strong relationships first, with organizations in our own backyard, and across sectors. We develop partnerships with individuals and organizations that share our passion and our vision—even if they might not appear to be an obvious partner. Sometimes the relationship is mutually beneficial, and sometimes we partner to assist others in their efforts, even if it might appear that they have nothing to contribute immediately to our work. Partnering, collaborating, assisting, sharing: it all comes back in the end and is part of a collective effort to improve the health and well-being of all people.

Since launching the Campaign to Change Direction, we have had the honor of engaging a number of public figures and celebrities. In addition to First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, we have been fortunate to receive help from Brian Wilson, Richard Gere, John Cusak, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Dano, Ben Foster and Margarita Levieva. Each stepped in to assist in our efforts to raise awareness. Each contributed to the movement we are building.

Most recently, country music star Chris Stapleton released his first music video, Fire Away, which addresses the issue of suicide in an artistically beautiful and emotionally painful film that features The Campaign to Change Direction. We received over 125,000 visits to our site in less than four weeks following the release of this powerful video.

We are proud of the community we are building, but not surprised by the support we are receiving. Mental health is part of the human condition. It’s time we recognize how important our emotional well-being is for all of us.

Be Fearless Spotlight: Surdna Foundation

This Spotlight is a part of a special blog series by the Case Foundation featuring Be Fearless stories from the field. Follow along with us as we meet people and learn about organizations that are taking risks, being bold and failing forward in their efforts to create transformative change in the social sector.

On the eve of its 100th anniversary, the Surdna Foundation is stronger, more nimble and more effective as a philanthropic organization than it has ever been. The secret to its success? Stakeholders who encourage failing forward, experimenting with new ideas and collaborating with others.

Created in 1917, the Surdna Foundation is a family foundation that has remained committed to a mission that captures its founder, John Emory Andrus’s beliefs: “Fostering sustainable communities in the United States guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, strong local economies and thriving cultures.” Aside from the mission however, little else about the foundation has remained the same.

Phillip Henderson, president of the Foundation since 2007, reflects that, “It’s been both an honor and a challenge to take on such an incredible legacy,” admits Henderson. “And it is no small task to keep Andrus’ vision alive and compelling to modern changemakers.” One of the unexpected struggles was simply explaining who Andrus was to his many far-flung descendants—and why his vision still matters a century later.

The Surdna team pushes themselves continuously and fearlessly to re-examine and re-interpret the organization’s philanthropic mission in the context of our time. The organization must work every day to answer several key questions—“What are the values espoused by the family? How do we make the work relevant, but still responsive to their values?”—then find ways to introduce new ideas and experiences (as well as challenging existing ones) to the foundation’s grantmaking.

Here are three examples of how the Surdna Foundation is creating its own fearless path forward:

 Failing Forward

In Henderson’s President’s letter from Surdna’s 2014 annual report, he reflects that “Foundations are uniquely independent [organizations]… we believe we are most likely to stay on track if we remain committed to constantly pushing ourselves to take risks and to innovate. But also to analyze our successes, and especially to admit to and examine our failures.”

He goes on to detail a pivotal fail forward moment for the Foundation and one of its grantees that would later help to define its overall strategy:

“When the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted in 2012 to award a nearly billion-dollar contract for light rail cars to a Japanese manufacturer with plans to build the cars in Osaka, Japan, we could see that our strategy of getting transit agencies to prioritize the creation of good American jobs in awarding contracts had failed. Despite the efforts of our grantee, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), and a broad-based coalition of labor, community and business leaders, the transit agency’s decision signaled that jobs and opportunities for economic growth were considered a nice side benefit, but cost was what mattered most.

Failure suggests winners and losers, and that a definitive end point has somehow been reached. But the failure of the coalition’s initial attempt to focus transit agencies on job creation wasn’t an end point. Failure didn’t stop Madeline Janis, the coalition’s leader; it only caused her to re-think and then double down on LAANE’s organizing efforts, which eventually led to success when the Japanese firm agreed to do some of the manufacturing in California. More generally, failure in philanthropy rarely means “game over.” Often it is a moment to re-evaluate, re-focus and re-energize. It re-affirmed for us that one of the fundamental qualities of philanthropic capital is the ability to be patient and persevere—to analyze and learn from tactical failures while re-committing to strategy.”

These days, Henderson would add, “You can call it failure or understanding. We approach the world assuming we don’t know everything about the future, so we try stuff. Some things will work well and some won’t. Most things we do don’t work out exactly as we imagined.” To get better at learning, including learning from failures, Henderson explains that “we are increasing the relative time, energy, and attention we allocate to the ’back-end’ of grant making—long after the award has been made but when the work begins to yield learning. This is where we will find out how we are making progress or if—and why—a project is coming up short.”

Experimenting Early & Often

Like many other foundations Surdna has begun to explore impact investing and how it can deploy more of its capital toward its goal of achieving greater impact. We think of impact investing as the next step in what has been a long history of funding market-based strategies, along with policy and practice, to achieve the type of systemic social change we are focused on.

Several years ago, Surdna began implementing program related investments (PRIs)—an additional two percent of its endowment on top of the five percent it was already allocating for grant making annually. In the Foundation’s 2013 Annual Report, the team shared examples of some of its early PRIs. “We made an exciting PRI to support people of color and women running small businesses that allowed entrepreneurs to access government contracts. We also invested in regional food distribution, giving small- and mid-scale food producers a way to sell locally and resulting in more urban neighborhoods with access to affordable, healthy food from their own regions.”

Leadership at Surdna goes on to state in the Annual Report, “And we’re now discussing how we might expand our impact investing even further—beyond PRIs—to include aligning our endowment with our mission. Our board is excited to explore using our investment capital—not just our grant dollars—to contribute to social change.


Henderson says that working collaboratively has allowed Surdna to pool its dollars, leverage partners and incentivize others, which ultimately grows the pot and helps the foundation scale up the transformative work being done by its grantees. One such example is Partners for Places, which is a matching grant program for national funders to invest in local community projects that promote a healthy environment, a strong economy and well-being for all residents. Surdna is one of six funders that support Partner for Places in an effort to encourage sustainability focused grantmaking. To date, Partners for Places has awarded more than $2.5 million across North America.

Through Surdna’s efforts to innovate with others, they have learned reaching beyond one’s bubble can ultimately help funders, grantees, policymakers and community leaders reframe how they work on issues, create new champions and ultimately deepen impact in the field.

“We’re paying attention all the time to who the other actors are in the space,” says Henderson of the ways Surdna exemplifies the Be Fearless principle of reaching beyond their bubble. “We’re not on the ground doing it, but rather we are identifying key innovators in that space and trying to give them funding and create connections.”

The Surdna Foundation’s embrace of a fearless approach has helped it stay true to its core mission while also allowing it to evolve for the next century of changemaking.

Feeling inspired? If you’re ready to begin your own Be Fearless journey start by downloading our free Be Fearless Action Guide and Case Studies.

An Opposite World for Opposite Day

Today is Opposite Day! Or should we say, today is not Opposite Day…

On this lighthearted day created to celebrate the unorthodox, we give pause and think about how we might apply the same paradoxical principles to our own work in the social sector. We asked ourselves, what would the world look like if a few key things got turned upside down and their opposites became the reality?

What if the majority of investments were Impact Investments?

In the world right now, most investments are still made without considering their environmental and social impact. In fact, of the estimated $212 trillion invested worldwide, only $60 billion has to date been identified as intentionally committed to impact investing. Today, we allow ourselves to imagine if the opposite were true: if essentially all investors sought to not only mitigate negative impact within their investments, but actively invested to improve social and environmental outcomes. What might the world look like if trillions of dollars were unleashed with the dual intent of catalyzing long-term, sustainable social change and making a profit? In this “profit with purpose” climate:

  • Institutional investors would be equipped with the tools to build out diverse, impact portfolios.
  • Individual investors would have a huge pipeline of new businesses to invest in, and impact would factor in to all of our investment options.
  • Fund managers could develop competitive impact funds for all investors.
  • Your entire 401K would be invested to intentionally create stronger communities, more sustainable environmental outcomes, greater social equity, better treatment of employees in all sectors and improved schools and access to education globally.
  • Social businesses would have access to the kind of scale-fueling dollars that allow them to create positive outcomes in communities all over the world.
  • Markets would have the capacity to track financial and social performance bolstering investor confidence.
  • Philanthropic dollars and government efforts would be matched with fully committed capital markets, driven to do more than maximize profits.

In this opposite world, the possibilities seem endless when impact investments are the norm and the private sector is fully harnessed to tackle our most entrenched social issues.

What if the majority of new high-growth startups were lead by diverse teams?

Right now, most companies funded through venture capital are founded by white men, making for a very homogenous startup community that tends to exclude women and entrepreneurs of color. Recent research found that 85 percent of all venture capital–funded businesses have no women on the executive team, only 2.7 percent had a woman CEO and less than one percent have an African-American founder. And yet, a growing library of research suggests that teams with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation are more innovative than homogeneous groups, and that diverse companies perform better financially. So what if we flipped these statistics on their head? What if the majority of high-growth companies with venture capital funding were lead by diverse teams of entrepreneurs?

  • Diverse entrepreneurs would have access to valuable social capital through new networks and mentorships.
  • By moving more investments to diverse teams, we would get more successful entrepreneurs who represent diverse communities. This would mean our leaders, investors and entrepreneurial decision-makers would have those same valuable diverse backgrounds and experiences that make their companies successful.
  • More venture capital firms would include women executives and executives of color in the funding decision-making process, which, if similarity bias research holds true, would distribute venture capital funding more evenly among diverse entrepreneurs.
  • A new generation of young entrepreneurs would be inspired, and current women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color may have a chance for funding because they’re being noticed for the first time.

This topic is complicated for many reasons, but one thing is clear: when we have an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem, we have more people sitting at the table to help push us forward and innovate, create economic growth and strengthen communities.

What if instead of erring on the side of caution, we all decided to Be Fearless?

Too often today, those of us charged with finding or funding solutions to social challenges — philanthropists, government, nonprofits — seem to be moving too slowly and often operating with the same set of tools, concepts and caution of the generations before us. But what if failure wasn’t a limitation? What if taking risks was the status quo? What kind of world would you imagine?

In this fearless world, we would all:

  • Make big bets and make history – which is what the Levi Strauss Foundation did when it embraced the company’s 160-year pioneering legacy and was able to create an innovative new approach to investing in San Francisco’s rising social change.
  • Experiment early and often – as demonstrated by the Salesforce Foundation, which revolutionized corporate philanthropy through its innovative 1-1-1 model, giving 1 percent product, 1 percent equity and 1 percent employee time for philanthropic purposes.
  • Make Failure matter – just like the Jacobs Family Foundation did when it transformed an abandoned lot, took on an experimental initial public offering and ultimately transformed its business model from traditional grantmaker to place-based funder to maximize impact without sacrificing its core values and mission.
  • Reach beyond our bubble – and follow in the steps of Global Health Corps, which was formed by six diverse strangers with a shared vision to spark and nurture unlikely partnerships among very different young people from around the world to impact global health.
  • Let urgency conquer fear – which compelled the senior leadership team at Share Our Strength to make big bets aimed at ending childhood hunger in America.

When global challenges seem overwhelming, we would set out to create unlikely partnerships, experiment with new thinking and set audacious goals—just like these fearless leaders highlighted above have done.

To build a better world, to make a real difference, we have to take bigger risks, make bigger bets, and fail forward; in short, we have to Be Fearless. These opposite worlds may be hard to imagine, and there are certainly hurdles to get there, but we, along with our partners in each of these areas, are working every day to make them a reality.

Ready to join us? Get started with the Be Fearless Action Guide, which offers step-by-step tools to help you take risks, be bold and fail forward.

Editors Note: On a previous version of this blog post the size of markets estimates quoted from the USSIF and the GIIN were incorrect and have been modified.