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Feb 20, 2014

Be Fearless! Me? How about We?

One of the ironies I encounter time and time again is that the nonprofits which we charge with solving the big social problems which the markets can’t solve are hampered by a tremendous fear of risk.

The fear of failure can prompt nonprofits to be reluctant to borrow money to start a new program or service, to be obsessed with balancing a budget even if it means cutting back on new programs and “staying the course”, and sometimes to be more concerned with the longevity of the organization  than with the continued relevance of its mission services to the community.  Nonprofit work is difficult and sometimes frustrating work but the fear of falling short of expectations and falling out of favor can sometimes compound the difficulty of the work.

The fear of failure can prompt foundations to draft grant criteria that exclude nonprofits that are younger than 3 years, that have not yet established a board, or remain smaller than $1 million.  Sometimes foundations predetermine the service areas they will consider, potentially precluding consideration of path-breaking ideas not currently on their radar.  Joel Fleishman, then chairman of the Markle Foundation, wrote in 2002 that a foundation “is supposed to be engaged in fulfilling a mission as the principal pool of society’s social venture capital.”  The fear of making a grant that may miss its targets or of supporting a new organization that may ultimately fail can limit this venture potential.

So…..who needs a pep talk?  Well, the Case Foundation wants to give both foundations and nonprofits a pep talk to “Be Fearless.”

For those readers among us they have a report.  The report provides five challenges to be fearless:

  1. Make big bets and make history.
  2. Experiment early and often.
  3. Make failure matter.
  4. Reach beyond your bubble.
  5. Let urgency conquer fear.

Or, if you prefer a more audio-visual message, watch this short, punchy video or this longer version that reminds us of many breakthroughs that at first glance had no glimmer of their eventual greatness.

As I wrote in Chapter 7 of More Than Just Money, the successful nonprofit will need to learn to operate in a permanent state of transition.  Status quo precludes success and survival.  Quite the opposite: taking risks, learning to let go of the familiar, making way for the next generation, and knowing when to move on are just a few of the attributes that are possible only if nonprofits, donors, and foundations can allow themselves to “Be Fearless.”

While the Case Foundation’s effort provides no new ideas, it  perhaps may be the kind of pep talk we need to revisit every few months to remind ourselves that we are the status quo unless we continually strive to change and take the risks inherent in change.  Let’s keep repeating the Be Fearless mantra:  make bigger bets, experiment more often, develop interesting partnerships, act with urgency, and make failure matter.  And find partners who will repeat it with us!