This post was written by Michael Smith on behalf of the Case Foundation.
“You’ve got to act. You’ve got to be willing to fail. You’ve got to be willing to crash and burn.” – Steve Jobs, Apple
Ever since the launch of our Be Fearless campaign last year, we have been talking about experimentation, big bets, urgency, and yes – failure. The topic of failure in the social sector is filled with language to make it seem less intimidating. People talk about a “learning experience,” “work in progress,” or “opportunity.” It’s rare that the word failure will come up when discussing grant proposals or creating a new organization, as it carries with it unpleasant memories of frustration, struggle, and maybe even embarrassment. We want to change that. We want to embrace the fact that failure happens and allow people to talk about it openly and honestly. Anticipating failure, admitting it, and then moving forward with new knowledge comprise what philanthropic consultant Lucy Bernholz terms “failing forward.” It is only through direct conversations about failure that we can all truly learn from it, grow as a result of it and fail forward together.
As part of our Fearless Forum series, we have been collecting stories of failing forward across the country. Since the beginning of the year, we’ve hosted seven Fearless Forums, bringing together speakers and panelists to share their stories of fearlessness, innovation, and of course, failure. Speakers from Campbell Soup Foundation, DC nonprofit Mary’s Center, PBS, Conrad Foundation, GOOD/corps, Levi Strauss Foundation, our CEO Jean Case, and many more have spoken about their work to bring fearlessness to the social sector. It is inspiring and enlightening to hear social sector leaders willing to discuss their successes, failures, and dedication to disrupting stale and stagnant silos where tired social solutions have failed to succeed.
Earlier this month, we held a new style of Fearless Forum at the Council on Foundations conference in Chicago. We partnered with GOOD/Corps to host “Liquid Courage,” a happy hour “fail fest” with food, drinks, music, and an open floor for brief stories on failing forward. In an hour and a half, nearly one hundred COF conference attendees heard 15 stories of failing forward in philanthropy from their fearless colleagues — some pre-selected and some who volunteered on the spot. It was inspiring and humbling to hear personal stories of failure from Grant Garrison of GOOD/Corps, Rahsaan Harris from Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP), Chris Gates from Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), Daniel Lee from Levi Strauss Foundation, and many others. One of my favorite quotes came from Kristin Lindsey at the Global Fund for Children, who said, “Somebody has to say that every once in a while a grant goes bad.” It turns out that many of the stories were incredibly common, but seldom shared in public.
To see more quotes and tweets from Liquid Courage and Be Fearless at COF, check out our Storify.
Another highlight of the year so far was a session our CEO Jean Case held at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University as part of our colleague Ambassador Doug Holladay’s Leadership Residency “LIFE ENTREPRENEURS: Bringing Meaning and Contribution to Business and Politics.” Through stories, case studies, inspiration breaks with Warby Parker founder Neil Blumenthal and City Year co-founder Alan Khazei, a FearlessFactor quiz, and roundtable discussions, Jean guided the students through an interactive exploration and conversation on the role of fearlessness in business and social innovation. Discussion ranged from anxiety about pursuing non-traditional career paths such as startups or social-purpose business to knowing how to innovate in naturally (and sometimes necessary) risk-averse cultures like finance and government.
We were fortunate to have a full recording of the session made by Echo360 and available online through our YouTube channel. View Jean’s entire session, or take a few minutes to watch some quick one-minute highlights from the day.
Most recently, team members Allie and Jenna traveled to Minneapolis for the Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC), where they both spoke about failure in their respective sessions. In a plenary panel moderated by Beth Kanter, Allie shared some of the Case Foundation’s fail forwards and encouraged funders to lead the charge in taking risks and making little and big bets on ideas and people that are doing fearless work to change the world. Read the Storify from that session here.
There is plenty more to come from Be Fearless and our Fearless Forums this year! Stay tuned for event announcements and a new page on casefoundation.org/befearless where you can keep up to date on Fearless Forums, and hopefully you can join us at one of them. And be sure to follow us on Twitter @casefoundation, and join the #befearless conversation every day.
In the meantime, please keep telling us about new fearless stories, fearless changemakers and examples of foundations and nonprofits putting a fearless approach in practice. Let’s Be Fearless, together!