Steve Case, the co-founder and former chairman and CEO of AOL, and his wife Jean, the CEO of the Case Foundation, are in many ways a model of the partnerships they model in their philanthropy. Their collaborative approach brings people of different backgrounds and cross sectors together to maximize the impact of social and business initiatives, just as Jean and Steve are brought together by technology and good from different personal circumstances and influences.
Steve, who grew up in Hawaii, credits his parents with exposing him to the notion of giving back to the community as his first major influence. “Even though they were busy with a lot of different things including raising a bunch of kids, I saw that they really made a priority of trying to be involved in and supportive of their communities and various issues and passions they had that they thought were important,” Steve says.
The second greatest influence was his involvement in AOL, which was a business as well as a cause with a social mission. He witnessed firsthand the transformative impact a cause could have on society.
“We really were trying to get America online–literally–and to build the Internet. When we started, only 3% of people were online in the United States and the people were only online an hour a week,” Steve says. “So watching that grow and seeing the impact it had, not just in terms of the business and profits and value of stock options and so forth but the impact it had on people’s lives was also moving.”
Steve was inspired by the opportunity to create change and to amplify that impact.
“Whether it be from the early years growing up or the AOL growth years or the last decade or so focusing on the Case Foundation and Revolution, we’ve just seen the impact and that just inspires us to push a little harder, dig a little deeper, commit a little more to try to have the broadest possible impact on issues we care about and on trying to make the world a better place,” Steve says.
“We always knew at some point we would turn to more traditional philanthropic roles,” Jean says. “We created the AOL Foundation, which was our toe in the water from a formalized philanthropy from a corporate sector, and that really gave us a little bit of experience and insight that then led us to launch our own family foundation.”
The most striking difference between what led Jean and Steve to this generous place is their upbringing. Jean and her three siblings were raised by a single mother. Although her mother struggled financially as a waitress, she always found resources to help a family in need.
“It was challenging economic circumstances and I think she modeled an unbelievable life of generosity and caring for others,” Jean says. “Although we didn’t have much, we always found a way to be in the lives of others and to try to make a difference. And I think very early on I realized if you don’t have much and you can still dig and give then certainly if you’re ever in a position to have more, you’re almost doubly called to that.”
Having that opportunity to help someone gave her both a sense of self-respect and of being a part of something greater than herself. As a child, Jean volunteered at the church and in the community with her family.
“That was another frontline experience of the powerful impact of caring for others and putting yourself and resources on the line,” Jean says. “Faith is still a very big part of my life and a part of why I do what I do.”
Jean emphasizes that faith-based giving is not simply about giving to the church or organized religion but rather about ways that translate out into the communities that they serve. She continues to engage through local churches as an individual separate from the Case Foundation and has participated in large initiatives such as feeding thousands at Thanksgiving.
“When I think about generous people, I have a special place in my heart for fearless generous people,” Jean says. “Think of people who might have gone in a different direction and instead said no, humanity matters more.”
One fearless example, Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, a psychologist in the Washington, D.C., recognized that there was a gap in society for mental health services for our military and their families. She created Give an Hour, a network of doctors who each gave one hour a week to those affected by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today the network includes over 7,000 mental health professionals who provide pro bono support.
“It’s a great example of a fearless leader who put her heart in, skills, core competency, and has really changed the world because of it,” Jean says.
“If I were to name one other thing that inspires me, it wouldn’t be a person,” Jean says. “It would be this generation, the millennials. They see possibilities for a new way of doing things and hopefully that can address some of the really daunting challenges that the generations before them just somehow couldn’t reach down to solve.”