At the Case Foundation, bringing tech entrepreneurialism to philanthropy

Jean Case talks about The Case Foundation, which uses the entrepreneurial backgrounds of its technology-savvy founders to engage citizens to find solutions to complex social problems.
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

The Case Foundation, a family philanthropy launched in 1997, uses the entrepreneurial backgrounds of its technology-savvy founders to engage citizens to find solutions to complex social problems.

I spoke this week with Jean Case, who created the foundation with her husband and AOL co-founder Steve Case, about how the philanthropy sector has used technology and social media to garner citizen interest -- and how the field continues to evolve.

Talk about your philosophy, which is to take an entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy.

Both my husband and I spent our careers in the technology sector, in entrepreneurial start-ups. In my case, the first online service was an entrepreneurial start-up and that's where I started by career in technology. I went on to create an online service for GE and landed at AOL in the early days. We both came out of strong entrepreneurial backgrounds, both out of the tech sector, which is a real common element in what we do at the Case Foundation. It was kind of natural as we were thinking about moving out of the day-to-day intense AOL world into creating a private family foundation that we would bring some of those elements forward in our philanthropy.

What are some of the specific entrepreneurial approaches you take?

There's a strong passion and belief around here about the empowering nature of technology, specifically to level the playing field and enable individuals to engage in their community in new and meaningful ways. Because it is technology-based, things are always changing. That's another thing you often see in an entrepreneurial environment -- comfort with change. We've attracted a team of people who are excited by change, excited by risk-taking.

Talk about some of the specific ways you use technology to get citizens involved in philanthropic efforts.

A few years ago, we launched our first true web-based granting program. It was a civic engagement program that was community-based, but using the web. It was called Make It Your Own. We encouraged people around the country to consider daunting problems that were challenging their communities and think about how they could collaborate with others to bring solutions. We put together a simple grant application process, keeping in mind that many of the people applying maybe had never applied for a grant before. We got about 5,000 applications ranging in nature from things seen in their neighborhood to much larger communities or cities. We asked a panel of experts to help narrow those down. Finally, 20 of the top ideas were put online for other citizens to vote on. Some granting occurred based on who won.

It was a really important test. It taught us about the excitement of people to participate in their communities if given the opportunity to have some seed funding. These were not large grants. We had over 15,000 people vote on the finalists, who I think really felt a part of the process and were becoming champions of these projects as they went forward. More importantly, just recently we went back and did a quasi-longitudinal study on what happened. What was the longer-term outcome of what we did there? We published those results on our site and in a report, as well

Talk about some of projects the foundation is funding now and how those use technology.

Make It Your Own was followed up by two campaigns called America's Giving Challenge. Those were web-based campaigns encouraging people to champion for their favorite cause. Based on what received the highest number of donations, they would get some grant money for those causes. That was kind of a natural follow on Make It Your Own. We were out very early with that. Our two partners were Facebook Causes and PARADEmagazine. Those were chosen on purpose. Facebook Causes [was one of] the early adopters to social media. There weren't a large number of adults using Facebook when we launched, so it was truly an early experiment around social media and getting citizens to engage in causes they cared about.

We were really delighted with the results of the first one. We came back and did it again. The second one raised $2.1 million in about 30 days from 105,000 donations and 8,000 causes. We published our findings. We spend a lot of time out with nonprofits talking about what we learned. Both of these were projects that demonstrated the power and potential of using the web in this way. We've been really excited to see things like Chase Community GivingandPepsi Refresh follow in the footsteps of America's Giving Challenge. I'm not claiming credit that we're the reason they did it, but clearly it started to create a buzz and demonstrate the potential for these web-based competitions and challenges and prizes.

How do you think grant making and philanthropy will continue to evolve and change?

We were really excited by the potential we saw in philanthropy with the projects and challenges work we'd been involved in. Pepsi, when they decided to go forward with Refresh, had our team go up to the Pepsi headquarters and spend time with them as the program was being defined and put in place. But more exciting than that, the president put forward an executive order encouraging innovation and the acceptance of private sector practices, particularly around prizes and challenges. We, along with the White House, hosted a summit on innovation that brought together 35 federal agencies and 35 nonprofit organizations for a day-long effort around how to make use of these innovations. It continues to spread. It goes beyond philanthropy. We've seen corporate involvement and public sector involvement. We're really excited by it.

That's a lead in to the question you asked. We think that no matter what sector you're in, and no matter what your background is, the world is pretty disrupted and it's hard to keep pace with the changes around us, particularly the technology changes that can impact your business. We found ourselves taking on a significant role in working with nonprofit partners. [We offered] a helping hand as they looked at new and emerging technologies and began to envision, and in some cases partner with, new technologies to see how they could be used in philanthropy. Our role in working with the nonprofit sector to bring them along has really expanded.

Your bio on the Case Foundation website mentions that you learned some important lessons early in your philanthropy career. What were they?

I came out of the business sector and had the privilege of watching one company explode into great success. At the time we were looking at taking forward a foundation, we assumed all those great things we learned and all those great experiences we had would be naturally applicable here. But it didn't work out that way.

As we got into philanthropy we began to learn that it isn't so straightforward. Even if you just start with simple return on investment. Defining how you view return on investment isn't so clear in this particular space. If you talk to 10 philanthropists you may get 10 answers. Some of the disciplines around business that we had been using to also didn't exist on the nonprofit side. The world we were comfortable with didn't apply as we moved over to this new world. I was on a pretty steep learning curve.

It took us a good number of years before we figured out: Where are we? Who are we? What are we doing that's effective here? How can we uniquely add value in this space? We always knew it wasn't going to be about the checks we write. An easy way to do philanthropy is just write a bunch of checks. We always believed the right way for us to go forward was consistent with how we'd taken our businesses forward -- through partnership, collaboration, finding entrepreneurial models that could be successful and shining a light, so others could see and follow.

Image: Jean Case

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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