The Case Foundation turns 15 this year, and we’ve been asking some critical questions: What led to transformative advances that changed the social sector? In a world plagued with old problems, what was behind the bright spots—new thinking, new approaches and effective outcomes? The answer is simple: to innovate we must be fearless.
In observing our partners and in reflecting on our own work, we discovered that breakthroughs happened most frequently when organizations were willing to be bold, to act with urgency, and embrace risks with the potential to produce exponential social returns.
There are five key values at the root of every fearless approach to creating change. I put them forward here with the hope of sparking a dialogue on how foundations, nonprofits, social investors, political leaders and government institutions, and any individual working to create change can develop new approaches using a fearless mindset:
1. Make Big Bets—and Make History
Set audacious, not incremental, goals. History suggests that the most significant cultural transformations occur when one or more people simply decide to try and make big change. Thomas Edison didn’t simply try to make a better candle; rather, he proudly proclaimed his audacious goal to “make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” While there is a time and place for incremental, safe moves, there is also a clear need for social investors to make big bets on big change.
2. Experiment Early and Often
Don’t be afraid to go first. The world moves more quickly today than ever, and our responses have to keep up. Just when we think a certain intervention is working, that’s when we have to look down the road to see what new tools or new dynamics will challenge our assumptions or provide an even better solution. Experimentation in social change can be difficult for any organization. But experience shows us that we need to keep looking around the corner to find the next good idea—because today's iPhone is tomorrow's Walkman.
3. Make Failure Matter
Failure teaches. Learn from it. With innovation 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. Thomas J. Watson, longtime leader of IBM, famously said, "If you want to succeed, double your failure rate." It’s natural to be afraid to fail. No one seeks it. But if everyone commits to sharing lessons from failure, the society as a whole will be stronger and more prepared to attack the next challenge.
4. Reach Beyond Your Bubble
It’s comfortable to go it alone. But innovation happens at intersections. Collaboration provides new ideas and innovations, as well as “air cover” when sharing risk. A fearless approach embraces unlikely partnerships that cross sectors and geographies. Reaching beyond your bubble is not collaboration for its own sake; it is a fundamental part of being fearless. It spreads risk, but more importantly, it spreads knowledge and deepens impact.
5. Let Urgency Conquer Fear
Don’t overthink and overanalyze. Do. It’s natural to want to study a problem and look at it from all angles before taking action. What if we are wrong about our intended solution? What if there is a better way that we have not considered? Have we done our due diligence? A sense of urgency—what Dr. King called the “fierce urgency of now”—is the final ingredient that can push all the other principles forward in the face of resistance.
It’s no fun to be fearless by yourself, and thankfully, our research shows that many of our peers and partners have already blazed some trails. What’s next? We’re ready to spark a conversation in philanthropic and social-change circles about how and why we accelerate this approach. And we’re looking for leaders and practitioners alike to stand up and pledge to be fearless. The stakes are too high and the challenges too great for anything less.
Join a free live webcast about the Case Foundation’s Be Fearless initiative with Jean and Steve Case today, June 4, at 2pm ET, featuring special guests Walter Isaacson, Sen. Mark Warner, Tom Tierney, and Barbara P. Bush. Or read the foundation’s full “To Be Fearless” report.