09/26/2013 06:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Change Our Thinking, Change Our World

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

In a recent TEDTalk, Dan Pallotta exhorts us to stop rewarding nonprofits for how little they spend. At the Case Foundation, we agree. It seems our thinking about the nonprofit sector can, at times, be narrow-sighted. Focusing on one metric (overhead) without understanding the bigger picture can often confine an organization to playing "small ball" or incrementalism in fulfilling their mission. What if we instead, as Pallotta suggests, start rewarding organizations for thinking big and achieving big? What if we start with the idea that some of the areas we count as "expense" are actually a form of investment that is aimed at maximum growth potential and return -- even if in this space the "return" is social impact? And what if we encouraged nonprofits to leverage best-in-class marketing and talent to achieve unprecedented scale in their efforts?

It starts with being fearless.

At the Case Foundation, we celebrate people and organizations that dare to "Be Fearless": those that make big bets, experiment early and often, and make failure matter. As we've looked at some of the biggest breakthroughs in the efforts to solve the world's biggest social challenges, elements of this fearless approach are present in every one. However, all too often, we see nonprofits that default to the guiding principle of "proceed with caution" not necessarily because they lack innovative ideas or passion to scale, but because they know funders won't approve if the model puts an emphasis on marketing, talent or other things we understand lead to scale and impact in the business world. Just look at some of the world's greatest innovators and changemakers -- Thomas Edison, who lit up our world, said, "I haven't failed. I've just found 10,000 things that didn't work." Thankfully, Rosa Parks didn't need the approval of a board or management team running all the downside scenarios before she boarded a bus for a ride that changed history. A fearless passion for innovation and change allows urgency to conquer fear and is comfortable with risk.

Old models are broken - there hasn't been significant progress in many of the dogging problems that plague our societies in generations -- it's time to try new paths forward with the hope of a breakthrough. -- Jean Case

We believe that same kind of thinking can -- and must -- be applied to the work of philanthropy and nonprofits today. When it comes to finding solutions to the world's most pressing social challenges, we can't innovate fast enough. Those of us funding nonprofits - whether we are foundations or individuals -- have to give license to organizations to make big bets, take risks and experiment with new ideas, and perhaps most importantly, accept that failure is a possible outcome. Old models are broken - there hasn't been significant progress in many of the dogging problems that plague our societies in generations -- it's time to try new paths forward with the hope of a breakthrough. As funders, we must understand that achieving unprecedented scale or impact involves investment in great talent, marketing, or other initiatives that are traditionally seen as "overhead." We have to free the nonprofits and causes we care about to innovate and to use the same tools that have vaulted businesses for generations.

As Dan Pallotta so eloquently and passionately stated, it's time to start shifting our thinking about the nonprofit sector. Rather than holding the expectation that nonprofits are good at stretching charitable dollars by doing more with less, it's time to expect more. It's time to invest more. Through the simple act of transitioning our mindset from giving to investing, we each have the power to enable the organizations we know and love to change the world.

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