Jean Case

Chief Executive Officer, Case Foundation,
Encourages Risk Taking in Philanthropy at The Center’s Distinguished Speakers Series Luncheon

April 2014
by Susan Wampler

At The USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy (The Center) Distinguished Speakers Series luncheon on April 15, Case Foundation Chief Executive Officer Jean Case shared her ideas and commitment to risk taking in philanthropy as a driver for social change, as well as the foundation’s application of business strategies to their giving.

When she and her husband, Steve Case, created the foundation in 1997, Case said she was stunned to realize that philanthropy tended to be so risk-averse in its decision-making. The investments might have been big, but they were also safe — resulting in major opportunities being missed to make progress against daunting societal challenges. Instead, she added, philanthropy should operate on the front lines of risk capital in “trying to find solutions in our communities.”

After years of putting that pro-risk belief into practice, the Case Foundation began promoting it more heavily to the rest of the field. In 2012, it commissioned a study of the bright spots where transformational breakthroughs have occurred. “We wanted to know what’s behind the business when it works,” she said.

That research led to the foundation’s “Be Fearless” campaign and five principles it champions: Make big bets and make history. Experiment early and often. Make failure matter. Reach beyond your bubble. Let urgency conquer fear. The campaign encourages individuals and organizations to rethink traditional models and experiment with bolder approaches to making the world a better place.

“To find solutions — and we desperately need new solutions to old problems — we’re going to have to take risks,” Case told the audience. “If you’re going to innovate and you’re going to take risks, there’s a chance you’ll fail. Every great company and every great entrepreneur you’ve heard of … guess what? Their path is riddled with failures. It’s just not reality to think you can innovate without risking failure.”

Because failure often teaches more than success, the Be Fearless effort includes an online hub through which people working for change can share negative experiences as well as positive ones. The foundation even hosts “Fearless Forums” that include “Fail Fests,” during which participants share their stories and become more comfortable with the concept of failure being a positive.

The Be Fearless campaign is also informed by the foundation’s dedication to entrepreneurial approaches to giving, like impact investing. Such investments, which aim to solve societal and environmental problems while yielding financial returns, are giving rise to a new class of entrepreneurs and companies, explained Case. The concept combines the best aspects of business and philanthropy, and the foundation’s promotion of it draws upon Case’s previous private-sector leadership in technology and branding, which includes the marketing effort that launched the pioneering internet provider AOL.

Today, the Case Foundation is renowned for leveraging entrepreneurship and new technologies to increase civic and business participation in the nonprofit sector. Even the couple’s business ventures have been rooted in leveling the playing field of opportunity. “Many of us felt at the time AOL was launched that it could have been a nonprofit, because what we set out to do was democratize access to ideas, information, and communication,” Case said. “We had a spirit in the company — our DNA — that was very much mission-driven.” Even though the term impact investing wasn’t really known at the time, the company embraced that approach, she added.

While Case’s desire to revolutionize philanthropy stems from her private-sector background, her understanding of the need to help others is more personal. As one of four children raised by a single mother, she said she benefited from philanthropy at an early age. This included a full scholarship at a private school that led to mentorship from a local politician who later hired Case after he was elected to Congress. Her path to success might not have happened, she admitted, without “people like everyone here in this room basically saying, ‘I’ll spend my time, my precious money trying to create an opportunity for someone else.’”

Case also discussed the importance of engaging millennials by speaking to their interests and addressing causes important to them. Beyond their idealism, Case sees the future in young people’s silo-free viewpoints. “They see a world in which it’s not about government or nonprofit or philanthropy,” she said. “They just want to go change the world.”

This desire to reach past traditional boundaries aligns with the Cases’ own activity. She and her husband have long viewed their work as intersecting philanthropy and business. On a personal level, they joined The Giving Pledge started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, committing to donating the majority of their wealth to charity. Professionally, she sees the Case Foundation’s capitalist-based philanthropy as a harbinger of more and newer social-enterprise hybrids. “We need to always unleash ourselves from how it’s been and think about what it needs to be going forward.”

She praised The Center’s forward-thinking outreach that brings together foundation leaders to share ideas and foster collaboration. Despite the common sense of such an approach, she added, “Actually it’s radical. We’re a sector that’s not known for its collaboration.”

Jeff Hoffman, president of Jeff Hoffman & Associates and a member of The Center’s Board of Advisors, moderated the conversation. Afterward, Case answered audience questions. More than 200 leaders from business, government, and the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors—including a particularly large number of individual donors — attended the event.

The Center’s Distinguished Speakers Series provides a venue for leading policymakers, foundation executives, and philanthropists to share their views from different vantage points. Conversations address changing trends in philanthropy, the resulting implications for public problem solving, and how to raise the field’s profile.