Be Fearless Spotlight: From Transactional to Transformational, Fearlessly

This Spotlight is a part of a special blog series curated 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 Edward D Breslin (@NedBreslin), Chief Executive Officer of Tennyson Center for Children (@TennysonCenter), and a 2011 winner of the Skoll Award For Social Entrepreneurship.

“It seems impossible. I mean, every child, as in EVERY child,” she said the filled-to-capacity room of therapists and social workers who make up the Tennyson Center’s Community Based Service (CBS) corps. The weight and possibility of the big bet, driven by urgency, was settling on all.

Tennyson is generally known as a Colorado-based residential treatment facility for children experiencing trauma from abuse and neglect. And while we do have beds for kids whose families have disintegrated, our programs transcend that narrow definition, led in many ways by our CBS team.

CBS is made up of exceptional therapists and social workers who meet loving parents in their homes and at their schools to help kids remain locally integrated. CBS sees the kiddos they work with as part of a larger community, and they understand firsthand how big the problem of abuse, neglect and mental illness are throughout the state. Demand for our services is growing as educators, parents and local first responders see the impact of our work, and my colleague, in her emphasizing every, knows that a commitment to every child means a lot of children.

She paused after taking in the totality of our commitment, and looked at her colleagues before saying, “But that is why I dedicated myself to this profession. I want to be part of a broader solution that helps every child, not just some children. And I believe we can do it. In fact, I know we can.”

Her colleagues nodded approval, and the meeting rightly shifted to how we can succeed rather than if we should even try.

I have been here before, and it’s a magical moment when staff shift from fear and transactional mindset to a big, bold move designed to address a fundamental problem at scale.  In other words, when an organization decides to Be Fearless.

I served as CEO of Water For People when we launched Everyone Forever, which reimagined the way we, and in effect the international water and sanitation sector, operated. Instead of installing projects in a random assortment of villages—choosing some and bypassing others—we decided to unleash our ambitions in a new, bolder and more scaled way. We were making a big bet in hopes of making history. We targeted all villages in districts and cities across the world, saying we would not rest until every family, every school and every clinic had access to water and sanitation services and never needed international aid or philanthropy again.

People scoffed, saying it was not possible. This was expected, as we generally live in a world of small thinking and caution, where bold mission statements about solving problems are not matched by the programming needed to actually solve them. Everyone Forever tapped people’s deep desire to actually solve the problem, stated our ambitions starkly and unashamedly, and put our reputation on the line with a commitment to verify results for 10 years after the work was done. We were not interested in helping some villages or installing a water point and having it fail at a later date. We were committed to solving the problem, boldly, fearlessly and permanently.

But to our surprise, many people and organizations actually came along with us on our fearless journey. In some ways they had to—what is the alternative? The urgency for a solution pushed us and others to conquer our fear. New districts not part of the original Everyone Forever push demanded similar support, donors started funding along more ambitious lines focused on full coverage and demonstrated results over time, and sector work started to shift from village to district-wide interventions with a plethora of actors who all had a role in solutions.

The critical step with Everyone Forever was not a new funding source (we realigned existing funding and lured new donors over time), a detailed “plan” that laid out every step along the way (we would iterate, learn, pivot and eventually build out plans) or wide agreement from external players (who eventually came along as the path cleared for them too).

No, the first step was belief that came from the heart and reconnected staff to their purpose, unleashing their passion in new ways while fearlessly putting our reputation on the line to become transformational instead of transactional. We tapped people’s desire to actually solve a problem, and pivoted against the fear that keeps most small.

In that same fearless spirit, at Tennyson, we’re excited to launch Every Kid Forever in a host of Colorado counties with clear intent this year.  We are now supporting two additional counties (Weld and El Paso) in addition to our historical work in Denver, and will roll out a further 3 county-wide initiatives in the coming years based on experiences gained.

We are be reaching beyond our bubble to align our funding and programming with other government, school, corporate and nongovernment allies who, collectively, will work to ensure every child in target counties experiencing trauma from abuse and neglect, suffer from autism and depression or anxiety, and whose behaviors undermine their ability to thrive at home and school, get the support they need to thrive. We will not be satisfied with helping some; we insist on surging forward to help all.

And if we succeed, we hope that such ambitious programming will spread with or without Tennyson so that the collaborative solutions we are building and the scaled impact we all are having makes others say, “We can do that. We can even do better.”

Make no mistake—we have taken the most important step. We will shift finances, build on strengths, realign with others and surge forward with raised expectations so that no kid falls through the cracks because people’s bolder purposes have been unleashed.

Why would we do anything less?