A Conversation for the Social Sector: How to Stop Fostering the Unexceptional

May 12, 2014

This year the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers’ Spring Colloquium for the Social Sector will explore the notion of being fearless and how a philosophy of calculated risk can drive innovation. Discussing fearlessness and acknowledging failures is no easy task especially in the social sector. But to pursue the exceptional, to support true invention requires us to be fearless.  And, that requires the ability to look critically at what is working and what isn’t and then have open, upfront conversations.  Timid and tepid discussions about these issues will not do.  How funders and grantees – investors and entrepreneurs – tackle these difficult situations will be center stage on Tuesday, June 3 at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Being Fearless: Driving Change for Impact is a conversation whose time has come and I invite all those working in the social sector to attend.

Every year the Council’s Spring Colloquium brings together highly recognized national thought leaders for a conversation exploring topics of critical interest to the future of the social sector. This year, we’ll welcome Ellen Lambert, President of the PSEG Foundation, who will moderate the discussion, joined by panelists Ami Dar, Founder and Executive Director of Idealist, Cindy Rizzo, Vice President of Impact & Learning at the Arcus Foundation, and Ben Cameron, Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Each of our panelists and their organizations have embraced the concepts of fearlessness – from building a connected network of people with less than $3,500 to championing a variety of social justice issues to helping arts organizations explore innovative ways to build demand and develop their audience. Inevitably these big ideas had failures along the way. But these failures were not wasted, as they provided an opportunity to learn and grow. And indeed not thoroughly and completely confronting these failures would truly have been a wasted opportunity to the point of risking current successful endeavors and initiatives.

This particular conversation for our sector is vital to reframing how we think about risk and innovation. More and more the social sector is stepping up these hard conversations and I’m struck by the thoughtfulness we are giving to this issue. In Pioneering Ideas: Talking About Philanthropic Failure, Robert Hughes, former Vice President and Chief Learning Officer at The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation makes the point”it is this very independence [of the foundation] that drives the need for foundations to themselves generate the honest, critical assessment of their performance that is so important to their missions.” Jean Case, CEO at the Case Foundation and Kathleen Enright, President of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, shared a celebrated dialogue posted on the Huffington Post.  Case’s “Be Fearless” campaign offers some transformative models to consider:  “reach beyond your bubble,” “make failure matter,” “experiment early and often,” “make big bets” and “let urgency conquer fear.” We’ll unpack and dive into all these ideas at the Colloquium – maybe even challenging our individual comfort level as philanthropic and nonprofit leaders in New Jersey’s social sector.

An original Jersey boy once said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison was speaking of his light bulb. Today, the light bulbs of our future – the sparks of innovation – are the critical components needed to improve outcomes for our children, revitalize our communities, to move people out of poverty and so much more. Thomas Edison’s 10,000 failures, reframed as lessons, paved the way to light up the dark. A healthy philosophy of strategic risk-taking and learning from failures are essential elements of impact and greatness.

I invite you to join us at the Colloquium on June 3rd, and to read more about these important conversations!

Nina Stack is President of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the statewide association of more than 120 funding organizations working in New Jersey. She also serves as a Board Member of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, a 34-member network serving more than 4,000 foundations, corporations and other donors across the country.