When we look at the state of the world today, we see a mixed picture. Rapid innovation in an increasingly connected society is transforming the way we work, play, and live. But we also see global economic woes, civic unrest, and political stalemates. As a result, social issues that challenge communities both domestically and globally are becoming more urgent and interconnected.
Meanwhile, those of us charged with finding or funding solutions to chronic social challenges — philanthropy, government, nonprofits — seem to be moving too slowly and often operating with the same set of tools, concepts, and cautions of the generations before us. If we’re going to keep up with the rapid pace of change and the daunting volume and complexities of these challenges, we must rethink traditional models. The old way of doing things is simply no longer effective in this new world. It’s time for all of us to take risks on new ideas, approaches, and initiatives. It’s time for us to be bold, to act with urgency, and to resist the tendency to let caution be our guide. It’s time for us to Be Fearless.
The Case Foundation turns 15 this year, and as we approach that milestone we’ve been taking a hard look at our own evolution and the world around us. Looking back over all the efforts we’ve undertaken through the years, we found that we were most successful when we were fearless — when we have explored and experimented — and the least successful when fear or caution somehow became a dominant driver of decision making. Interestingly, we observe a similar pattern with many of our partners and colleagues in the sector. But what exactly does it mean to Be Fearless?
Because the very idea of Fearlessness can bring out fears, it’s important to state up front what it isn’t: we’re not talking about reckless abandon here. We’re talking about sincere, diligent efforts to innovate — to find new ways to try to solve old problems. In short, to adopt a set of “Fearless Principles” that can create a roadmap for attempting to disrupt old, ineffective efforts with new approaches that might represent measurable progress. Here are some initial thoughts:
Dream big: The easy road in any undertaking is to set comfortable, realistic goals. But if we’re truly going to Be Fearless — and find breakthrough opportunities to change the world, we must set audacious goals. Many of the most significant and breakthrough efforts throughout history were made possible simply because someone decided to dream big. President Kennedy’s call to go to the moon, Thomas Edison’s passionate pursuit of electricity that could light and guide our world, our forefathers’ audacious vision for a free and independent United States — these are all examples of big dreams and audacious goals in their time that have changed our world forever. In more recent examples within the social change sector, we can point to global efforts to eradicate malaria deaths by 2015.
Specifically, the UN Special Envoy for Malaria, Ray Chambers, who brought together a coalition of great organizations like Malaria No More (which he co-founded), Roll Back Malaria, and the UN Foundation’s Nothing But Nets, and of course the Gates Foundation, to work toward this incredibly ambitious goal. Their fearless efforts have already shown great strides — malaria prevention tactics have led to a fall in malaria deaths of more than 33 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2000.
Experiment (& take risks!): Things are moving so quickly today and the playing field is changing constantly. As such, our experiments have to keep up. While it’s important to look at the long term and longitudinal, society can’t wait (and technologies won’t wait) for a 30-year study and quadruple double blind test group. We have to experiment constantly even if we don’t have the perfect set of circumstances — when we’re finished with one experiment we need to be thinking about the next. And, when we think a certain intervention is working we have to be looking down the road to see what new tools or new dynamics will challenge our assumptions or provide an even better solution. It’s this type of thinking that has kept companies like Apple and Southwest ahead of the game while less nimble and often bigger players have fallen behind.
Acknowledge the ups and downs: “So, what do we do next?” According to reports, that is the brave response Bill Gates offered in 2010 upon learning that the Gates Foundation’s $700 million polio effort had fallen short of stopping the disease from spreading throughout Africa. And when things aren’t humming along as planned, rather than try to sweep it under the rug, “What do we do next?” is exactly the right question to ask. We have certainly experienced failure, and completely sympathized with Bill Gates’ question when our work on the PlayPumps initiative didn’t turn out as we’d hoped. Because we took swift action to modify our approach and shared our lessons with the world, we not only increased our opportunity for impact, but know that countless others will learn from our experience. Look at any great business today and chances are their road to success included low moments that required fresh, new thinking and important course corrections. For many of us — whether it’s in our personal or professional lives — coming up short or failing big can stop us dead in our tracks, often times preventing us from ever putting our necks on the line again or avoiding a certain topic or task all together. A Fearless mindset owns those missteps and uses them as rungs on a ladder to propel you to your next victory.
Sometimes, it feels like philanthropic and social good efforts are held to a different standard. Since we are dealing with people and not products, all too often there is less tolerance for mistakes, which leads many organizations to become risk-averse. And when mistakes are made, the tendency is to hide them like “that” distant cousin we all have that no one talks about — thus depriving the sector of important lessons learned. In reality, the very nature of innovation requires that we try new things and take risks — because no matter the outcome, we can learn from our experiences and strive to do even better in the future.
Don’t fear failure: Countless business leaders, iconic entrepreneurs, and historical changemakers have shared their stories of failure that ultimately paved the way to success — Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a TV reporter, Henry Ford started five failed businesses before creating his famous American car company, and Nelson Mandela served 26 years in a prison cell before emerging to become the leader of a free South Africa. Entrepreneurs actually wear failure as a badge of honor, commonly touting the companies they started and folded before finding the right spark. While no one ever hopes for failure, and with much on the line, it’s natural to be afraid to fail — but the important part is that we “fail forward” as philanthropic consultant Lucy Bernholz terms it.
Mix It Up: When it comes to social change, we often think of the same organizations and types of people moving the needle forward — and partnerships across sectors are too few and far between. But what about stepping outside of the lines, playing a little mix and match, and seeing what might happen? When the opportunity arose in late 2010 to partner with the Kauffman Foundation to help lead a cross-sector effort supporting job creation through entrepreneurship, we jumped at the chance — even though the Case Foundation hadn’t traditionally been involved in economic development issues. But we believed in the initiative’s tremendous potential, and past efforts gave us confidence in creating a coalition across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, and thus the Startup America Partnership was born. And now, a year later, the effort has raised more than a billion dollars in resources from the private sector, launched nearly 20 statewide partnerships, and raised the conversation about the importance of entrepreneurs in healing our nation’s economy and joblessness. Time and time again cross-sector partnerships that buck tradition have proven this African proverb to be true … “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Since we introduced the concept of being fearless in our organization, it has been amazing for us to realize how many decisions we all make in a given day out of fear … how much to spend, which path to take, which person to hire, what offers to accept, what words to say. We also realized that Being Fearless is not easy.
In 2012 and beyond, inspired by the challenges we face and the opportunities we are afforded, we’re officially declaring our intention to Be Fearless in all that we do … in our approach to philanthropy, social change, and social good — and we hope you’ll join us in this journey.
In the next few months, you’ll hear a lot more from us on this subject … we’ll highlight fearless leaders and everyday heroes alike, we’ll explore the elements of fearlessness and how they can be applied across the sectors, we’ll search for fearless individuals around the country and fund ongoing acts of fearlessness, we’ll spark a conversation across the social good community about how we can embrace a fearless mindset, and most importantly we’ll wear fearless-colored glasses to make sure everything we do to invest and people and ideas that can change the world is done without fear.
For now, we need your help to jump start this conversation by sharing with us examples of people you know that have been fearless and why, fearless social good initiatives, fearless leaders, fearless organizations, or your personal stories of fearlessness. So, let’s get started. Will you Be Fearless with us?
Please share your thoughts on what it means to Be Fearless — whether in the comments below, using #BeFearless on Twitter, or on our Facebook page … we want to hear from YOU!