High-tech iconoclasts Steve and Jean Case embody the evolving role of technology entrepreneurs in philanthropy. They are bringing the same sensibility they brought to creating AOL to their current investments in people and ideas that can change the world. Partnerships, often between divergent groups and across sectors, are at the core of their philanthropic approach.
Laying the foundation for the Internet required a wide range of partnerships. As Steve Case, the co-founder and former chairman and CEO of AOL, forged ahead with getting America online by sending us all hundreds of CDs, he and his team pursued partnerships across sectors with software, communications and content companies as well as PC manufacturers.
“The whole story of AOL and the growth of the Internet was basically around partnerships,” Steve says. “It’s not surprising that having lived that and seen the power of that, that we took that same approach to our philanthropy, a network-based approach. There’s a great African proverb that animates a lot of our work: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, you must go together.”
The Cases's approach appears to not only mirror their professional experience but their personal as well. This dynamic duo works together across business and nonprofit sectors to bring diverse backgrounds and skills to advance social initiatives.
When the Cases established the Case Foundation more than 15 years ago, they initially followed a more traditional model of philanthropy. Just as entrepreneurs pivot towards a successful formula, the Cases made several course corrections along the way.
“We find that what made us successful in business are the same things that are most valuable in philanthropy,” Jean says. “So that’s not just time but that’s bringing our core skills, our core competencies, exposing the causes and the people we care about to our network and putting our reputation on the line, which is something we didn’t fully understand when we got started.”
Today, the Cases recognize there are many different ways to make an impact. After five years of quietly donating money to various organizations, they realized they could amplify their impact by using all the tools in their toolbox.
“We’re in a unique position blessed with not just resources but brands, reputations, networks,” Steve says. “And we believe that we can and should try to continue to make a contribution to society and the way to do that is through this multi-faceted effort including committing time and reputation as well as capital to initiatives that we care about.”
Jean is quick to note that they have in fact given away hundreds of millions of dollars; however, they believe the greater value-add comes from the wrap-around of that money. Building a business like AOL had a transformative and positive impact on people’s lives and society. Business, without which the Foundation would not have gotten its initial investment, remains a key component of their strategy through Revolution as well as other initiatives.
“The strong entrepreneurial spirit is something that we try to not only reflect ourselves but bring into our organizations,” Jean says. “We really think that American Dream needs to be available to everybody.”
“We believe it’s what makes this country great,” Steve says. “It’s why we have the leading economy. It’s why we’re the leader of the free world. Doing anything we can to continue to innovate and encourage innovation, entrepreneurship was critical. As an example of rather than just write a check and call it a day, we have spent a fair amount of time as well as reputation and money to try to mobilize a multi-faceted, multi-sector effort to push entrepreneurship and innovation.”
The Case Foundation helped create the Startup America Partnership, which links with the White House, various government offices, corporate sponsors and partners, such as the Kaufman Foundation. This initiative spawned into the Startup Weekend and Up Global, which try to connect startup culture with local issues. Additionally, Steve has become a tireless advocate on Capitol Hill and at the White House of business and immigration reform that benefits entrepreneurs.
“Cross-sector collaboration has been another hallmark of our work,” Jean says. “If you look at some of the big initiatives we’ve taken on, they’re usually bringing organizations and people together from a cross-sector standpoint, and trying to cross the chasm and make something more a part of everyday society.”
The Cases take the time to establish partnerships at the start of an initiative so that all the players feel like founders and are fully invested. The right coalition includes partners within the public, private, government and nonprofit sectors as well as with other philanthropists and foundations.
“When you get all those oars in the water, you can really accomplish big things,” Jean says. “Because we came out of the corporate sector, there were just times when, we’d look our fiercest competitors in the eye and say we have to work together on this. A great example was digital divide or online safety. When it came to the causes for good or things where you really had to level the playing field, everybody dropped their spears and locked arms and worked together."
The Cases hope to change the resistance many nonprofits have to working together. Through America’s Giving Challenge, they created a large platform that made giving easier but benefitted competing organizations. Billion Plus Change, a national campaign to mobilize pro bono services and skills-based service, encourages a similar collaboration among the non-profit and corporate sectors.
“A tapestry of alliances really cuts across our efforts whether it be our business efforts before or now, our philanthropic efforts, our policy efforts,” Steve says. “We’ve seen firsthand the power of them and recognize that if you are going to change the world, you’ve got to do it together and therefore you’ve got to figure out ways to align interests and build passions and build momentum.”
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