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.

Be Fearless Spotlight: Fail Forward

This Spotlight is authored by guest writer Caitlin Kelly as 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. 


Can you make a living—and help others succeed—by failing? Ashley Good, founder of Toronto-based Fail Forward, likes to think so, though it took a lot of personal failure before she figured this out.

Good wasn’t always so easily categorized as a risk-taker. She got her start studying geophysics and environmental science at the University of British Columbia, after which she had the opportunity to work with the United Nations in Cairo—a sobering experience that taught her “how complex the problems are and how inadequate the solutions.” Later, Good worked as a consultant in the oil and gas industry, flying in and out of Fort McMurray, Alberta, and with Engineers without Borders Canada in Ghana. It was when she followed a sweetheart to Ghana that she first encountered risk head-on.

“I ended up heartbroken, unemployed, living in my parents’ basement in Toronto,” she recalls. “Everything I’d poured my heart and soul into hadn’t gone anywhere. I very much needed a way of dealing with failure.” Good was inspired to take on the leadership of writing a report to document the failures of Engineers without Borders Canada.

Her analysis garnered her a lot of attention. As she puts it, “Failure needed me, as well.” Speaking truth to power demanded a special sort of fearlessness, she says, and that report “played a provocateur role. It was taboo to discuss failure openly, especially to the international development sector and especially charities. It was a learning tool.”

Naiveté helped. “I don’t think I appreciated how dangerous it was when I walked into it,” she laughs. “The failure I was describing was not a question of the quality of effort being applied. The entire system is one of power and ego at its heart.” She admits her own role in this: “In Ghana, I saw a problem and wanted to contribute to a solution. I wanted to succeed!”

Today, as she helps others cope with and mitigate their own painful failures, “it actually starts with decoupling ego from activity. The higher up you get in the hierarchy there’s so much at stake, millions of dollars, all those people who believed in you, who believed that you had the answer…”

“My work asks people to talk about their failures which is painful,” she says. “You have to be true to how that feels for you. Failure looks very different depending how much power you have. Your role is key.” Failing is painful because “we tend to build our identities around certain labels: smart, hardworking, personable, successful, etc. Failure often puts those labels into question, so being fearless in the face of failure is difficult if we don’t have an understanding of what we can hold onto that goes deeper than those labels and allows us to remain a healthy, whole human being. We don’t talk about it enough. Our economic contribution is valued above our spiritual or wise selves.”

The fearless piece of Good’s work is often conceptual—breaking long-held and cherished notions of what works. “We have to stop talking about solutions! If the problem we’re trying to solve had a ‘solution’ it would have been done. Instead we often have no idea! We have some little sparks of ideas but we’ll go into these massive complex problems,” sometimes investing a decade of one’s life and work to solving them.

Key to success, says Good, is redefining what it means to fail. “The word failure is an interesting one,” she says. “I don’t think anyone can be truly fearless. At our best and most courageous, we feel our fear and do it anyway. I do love the spirit of fearlessness… Everything we do has elements of failure and success when we’re involved in something complex.”

Good began her work focusing on the non-profit sector, but, as she quickly learned, everyone fails and everyone needs help figuring out what went wrong. Today she works with foundations, grant-makers and governments. “I really moved up to that level quite quickly,” she says. “I started to see that failure wasn’t a non-profit problem, but was really a ‘how we communicate’ problem.”

Key to examining failure without the usual shame-and-blame requires a fresh point of view—using what Good calls blameless post-mortems. With calm, open-minded discussion, failure offers a useful learning tool.

Living with fearlessness is really what Good does, while performing the fundamental work of “transforming our relationship with failure so we can solve complex problems. That’s a pretty audacious goal! There’s always a tension between optimism and clarity of which path to take.”


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.

National Failures Day: Be Fearless and Make Failure Matter

It seems like there is a holiday for everything these days, and sure enough, we discovered a new one today: it’s National Failures Day. What is there to celebrate? Plenty!

In our recent report “To Be Fearless” we outlined five key characteristics of a fearless approach to creating lasting social change. Before our landscape assessment and focus groups, we knew the concept which Lucy Bernholz described as “Failing Forward” had to be at the top of the list. Entrepreneurs, athletes and even politicians all know that recognizing, analyzing and proudly learning from failure is critical to success. While it has taken quite some time, we’re delighted to see some signs that the nonprofit sector, and those of us that invest in nonprofits, are becoming more comfortable with this concept. At this year’s Public Allies national leadership institute, Darell Hammond, the dynamic founder of kaBOOM, told the audience that kaBOOM staff are encouraged to make and share mistakes quickly so they can start making new mistakes that will lead to big wins.

In our new report, “To Be Fearless,” and below, we highlight a few examples of people and organizations whom have made failure matter. Take a look and then take the pledge to Be Fearless and make failure matter today!

  • Read the Make Failure Matter section of our To Be Fearless, starting with this excerpt: “With innovation and big bets comes the risk of failure. Every great innovator has experienced moments of failure, but the truly great among them wear those failures as badges of honor. When the philanthropy and social sectors are fearful, they increase the danger of depriving themselves and others of needed lessons. As innovators in the social good space, sometimes it’s easier to back away when it looks as if things aren’t going as planned. But it’s important to have faith and fail forward–to stay the course and to pivot when it’s needed. It’s the way you respond to failure, and not the failure itself, that matters.” Read more about making failure matter in the full report.
  • Philanthropy expert Lucy Bernholz has been a leader in encouraging our sector to fail forward.
  • Senator Mark Warner shares his moments of failure that led to his successes at our Be Fearless launch event (video).
  • Ben Duda, Executive Director of AmeriCorps Alumns, shares his journey as a social changemaker and how he’s made failure matter.
  • The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has devoted several chapters to their “To Improve Health and Health Care” anthology to learning from failure.
  • In 2010, I blogged about the painful acknowledgement of coming up short as it related to some of our clean drinking water investments in Africa.

Do you have moments in your journey to be fearless where you built big success on top of a big failure? How have you made failure matter? Share with us on our Facebook page or @CaseFoundation on Twitter using #BeFearless..