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Boardroom Insights: Case talks risks, non-profits

| Sunday, November 23, 2014

Jean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation, gave a lecture on the importance of measured risk-taking and failure in the philanthropy sector as part of the Boardroom Insights Lecture Series on Friday.

Case, who is nationally recognized for her philanthropic work, also serves as an advisor on the National Geographic Society Board of Trustees and the Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Initiative. In 2011, Case and her husband joined the Giving Pledge, a challenge in which members commit most of their wealth to philanthropic causes.

Throughout the lecture, Case said the path to success, far from being simple, is a very “circuitous road filled with potholes.”

“The fact of the matter is, almost anything significant I’ve accomplished in my life came out of failure,” Case said. “Something either didn’t go right, or there was an unexpected turn in the road.”

Case said well-established philanthropic organizations, fearing the mismanagement of donor funds, are generally unwilling to take risks.

“The big foundations now … don’t want to talk about failure,” she said. “They don’t want to feel like they wasted someone’s money. They don’t want to feel like they’re wasting grants, but if you’re trying new things, experimenting, taking risks, failure should be an option.”

Contrasting the more traditional philanthropic business plan, the Case Foundation takes measured risks when investing in people and ideas, Case said.

“If we’re going to innovate, we have to try new things, and it’s hard to find innovation without risk taking,” she said. “We came up with a series of principles that really could be brought together under the umbrella term ‘Be Fearless.”’

Drawing from insights from her philanthropic work, Case said she challenges young people who have ideas to acknowledge the importance of failure in crafting a successful product.

“I have one really big concern with this generation, and that is, particularly those of you … that have had some kind of privilege, they fear failure,” she said. “Your generation has the greatest ideas … but if this fear of failure stops you, you won’t be able to fully leverage your greatness.”

Case said the most innovative products are not always original, but rather are sometimes refinements of existing ideas.

“Many of the people we think of as geniuses didn’t come up with the ideas we associate them with,” she said. “They often came later, or they perfected it. You might see something that has potential, but someone hasn’t figured out how to take it mainstream.”

When solving challenging problems, Case said it is important to recruit people with diverse backgrounds and opinions.

“What’s often not understood is the importance of having people around you who are not the same as you,” she said. “And I don’t just mean in the talent and skill areas … but people with totally different points of view, totally different backgrounds. Innovation happens at intersections.”

Setting big goals in personal and career commitments is a crucial step to maintaining passion in life, Case said.

“To everyone, a big bet is different. Have one in your life, have one in your chosen profession,” she said. “If you don’t burn to wake up … to take forward your mission, you’re in the wrong place.”

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