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?

Entrepreneurs + Toilets: A Matchup that Won’t Go Down the Drain

This week at the Case Foundation, we’ve been celebrating entrepreneurs — their role as innovators, job creators and the heart of economic growth — as part of National Entrepreneurship Month and Global Entrepreneurship Week.

It just so happens that within this busy week falls another day that is close to our heart — World Toilet Day — focused on raising awareness of the 2.4 billion people around the world who lack access to clean water and sanitation. Today’s efforts will also shine a spotlight on the incredible people and organizations working towards meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to ensure access to water and sanitation for all.

For me, it’s a not just a happy coincidence that these two important world celebrations — entrepreneurs and toilets — fall in the same week. In fact, I see them as closely intertwined. Admittedly, it’s an odd couple at first glance… what do entrepreneurs and toilets have to do with each other? Actually, quite a lot.

We talk a lot at the Case Foundation about the role that entrepreneurs can — and must — play to solve some of our most intractable social challenges. And opportunities abound to bring entrepreneurial thinking and approaches to address the sanitation crisis.

One of the organizations living this idea is Sanergy, a social enterprise and a grantee of the Case Foundation. We’ve written about its groundbreaking work in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya and had the opportunity to spend time with the Sanergy team during our visit to Africa this summer. But what’s particularly worth highlighting about Sanergy on this year’s World Toilet Day is its unique approach to leveraging the power of entrepreneurship. Through its franchise model, Sanergy has created a community of 370 micro-entrepreneurs — known as Fresh Life Operators — who purchase and operate Fresh Life toilets, providing their communities with access to clean, safe and affordable hygienic sanitation.

The Sanergy team mentors and assists these entrepreneurs along the way: from providing training in basic business skills, to partnering with Kiva to provide access to interest-free loans, assisting in the set up of savings accounts and holding regular forums on best practices. Creating a community of successful Fresh Life Operators goes well beyond enabling these entrepreneurs to provide hygienic sanitation to their friends and neighbors (via the 764 Fresh Life Toilets deployed to date), but they are also helping them create jobs. To date, nearly 150 Fresh Life Operators have hired attendants to help run their toilets, creating new, steady jobs in an area with 40 percent unemployment.

Sanergy certainly isn’t alone in this endeavor to leverage entrepreneurship to address the sanitation crisis — our long time partner Water for People has piloted a “sanitation as a business” initiative, which it intends to build on in 2016. And WSUP (Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor) has been a leader in this space, incubating a number of new initiatives that leverage the power of business and entrepreneurship to provide sanitation solutions in places like Ghana, Bangladesh, Kenya and Zambia, through its innovative WSUP Enterprises effort. And companies like Sanivation (an alumni of the incubator program run by our friends at Halcyon House), Pivot, x-Runner Venture and many others are making an impact by providing toilets and removing waste from communities in places like Kigali, Naivasha and Lima. The list of innovative organizations leveraging entrepreneurship to address the range of challenges in the sanitation crisis goes on and on.

It is my hope that someday, we won’t need a World Toilet Day because each and every person will have access to safe, hygienic sanitation, forever. But until that day, let’s celebrate the unexpected and critical role that entrepreneurs and innovators can play in changing the status quo.

Show your support for World Toilet Day by tweeting: Celebrate the innovative entrepreneurs working to address the global sanitation crisis this #WorldToiletDay!

Fearless Focus: Ned Breslin

In our journey to Be Fearless and champion a fearless approach to tackling social challenges, the Case Foundation team will spotlight leading changemakers across sectors that have embraced fearlessness. Our spotlights will provide personal accounts of why these changemakers adopted a fearless approach, how they overcame hurdles, and how taking risks, being bold, and failing forward led to quicker results and deeper impact.

We recently spoke with Ned Breslin, Chief Executive Officer of (Case Foundation grantee) Water for People. Ned strongly believes that conventional approaches to water supply and sanitation are not scalable or sustainable – helping some but not others and often failing shortly after implementation. Finding this unacceptable, he has led innovative programmatic efforts that demand greater accountability of water and sanitation programs so that the lives of “Everyone” are truly transformed, not temporarily but forever, and without continued dependence on charitable organizations.

Learn more about Ned Breslin here. Read more about Be Fearless campaign. Know someone that we should spotlight for Fearless Focus? Let us know here in the comments or tell us on twitter @casefoundation using #befearless.

The painful acknowledgment of coming up short

“So, what do we do next?” According to reports, that is the response Bill Gates offered upon learning that the Gates Foundation‘s $700 million polio effort had fallen short of stopping the disease from spreading throughout Africa. Indeed, instead of putting a once-and-for-all stop to the disease, an outbreak had struck and was spreading through some of the very countries targeted for eradication. At the moment I read his response, I felt his pain. Imagine putting up such a significant sum from the goodness of your heart, committing your time, the talent of people you admire and respect and putting yourself out there in a really big way to meet a really big challenge and then … learning it didn’t exactly work the way you’d planned for and the way you passionately hoped it would.

When I say I get this, I really get this. On a dramatically smaller scale, at the Case Foundation we’ve had to face our own hard moments when reality has set in and you realize that the big opportunity you were chasing is looking more like a really big challenge that is hard to overcome. Things don’t materialize as envisioned, and you fall short of your mark. It’s easy to feel discouraged or even embarrassed. You can’t help but worry about what people will think, or the price you might pay in the court of public opinion.

We experienced this recently, as we had to re-think our involvement in the PlayPumps initiative, which brings clean drinking water to rural African villages. When we were first introduced to the technology, we believed both the technology and the business model for its deployment had enormous potential and jumped in with both feet to help create PlayPumps International-U.S. as a US-based fundraising and marketing organization to support the initiative. As we’ve noted in the past, we’re proud of the successes the initiative has had – PlayPumps are now bringing play opportunities and improved access to safe water in hundreds of communities and schools in Africa. In addition, these efforts have helped spark a number of new play-related technologies now being offered by various organizations and the initiative has highlighted the important role that social entrepreneurship can play in global development. However, we also acknowledge that the organization has fallen short of the aggressive goals that were developed at the outset, and all involved have learned many lessons.

As I noted last fall, we learned that doing work on the ground in Africa is hard and humbling work, even more so than anticipated. We learned that PlayPumps perform best in certain community settings, such as at large primary schools, but they are not necessarily the right solution for other communities. And more broadly, we learned that however creative PlayPumps might be, they really are just one element in a larger portfolio of possible solutions that can be tailored to meet the safe water needs of specific rural communities. In addition, while there have been successes in implementing the PlayPumps technology, and we believe in the entrepreneurial approach of the PlayPumps model, a combination of factors made execution of the original model we envisioned when creating PlayPumps International-U.S. a significant challenge.

Of course, there really is only one appropriate response when things aren’t humming along as planned, and it is the same response Bill Gates offered, “So, what do we do next?” Because just like in business ventures, personal undertakings and public sector initiatives, things often go wrong. The unexpected happens. Reality doesn’t always play out like the business plan calls for. Look at any great business today and chances are their road to success was fraught with potholes – low moments that required fresh, new thinking and important course corrections. As a nation, I think we’ve learned that progress comes through trial and error, and much of what we enjoy today is because somebody somewhere was willing to blaze new ground.

In the case of PlayPumps, there were essentially three options. One was to stay the course, ignore the emerging realities, and stubbornly continue on a path that the growing evidence was suggesting was unwise. A second would be to pull the plug on the effort, and conclude that the time and capital was better invested elsewhere. And the third was to take a step back and regroup, and undertake efforts to go forward in a new and more effective way. For PlayPumps International-U.S., the third path was the right one. The belief that clean water was one of the great issues of our time hadn’t changed – but there were likely better ways to advance the initiative. In May 2009, the board of PlayPumps International-U.S. brought in a new CEO to identify a new path forward. Under his leadership, in October of last year, the organization announced a grant of funds and technology to Water For People, which now offers PlayPumps as part of a larger portfolio of solutions from which rural African communities can choose. At the same time, we announced an investment by the Case Foundation in Water For People to help the organization accelerate and expand its efforts in Africa. For nearly 20 years, Water For People has pioneered innovative approaches to safe water supply, empowering communities and utilizing local entrepreneurs for sustainable operations and maintenance, and we truly believe that their approach represents a step forward for the PlayPumps technology.

It sometimes feels like philanthropic efforts are held to a different standard than in the private or public sectors. All too often there is less tolerance for mistakes, which leads many organizations to become risk-adverse. And when mistakes are made, the tendency is to sweep them under the carpet – thus depriving the sector of important lessons learned. But in reality, the very nature of innovation requires that we try new things and take risks. Sometimes they will work, other times they won’t – but in all cases, we should learn from our experiences and strive to do even better in the future. Of course we would have liked PlayPumps to have achieved the reach and impact to date that we originally envisioned – it’s much more fun to talk about successes than disappointments. The bottom line is that hundreds of African communities now have greater access to clean water and the revised efforts working with Water for People will further improve its availability. Together with other sector efforts and replication of the concept, we do believe African communities will be better served and the interventions more sustainable because of the important course corrections we’ve put in place. Might we have to revisit the strategy again and adapt along the way? Maybe. Turns out innovating is hard work anywhere and anytime. In the developing world even more so. But if the philanthropic sector is transparent about mistakes and lessons along the way, and adapts as the situation calls for, hopefully we’ll all end up a little wiser and a little closer to solutions that can more effectively address the daunting challenges of our day.