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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Reflections on the path to social sector success

"There is one thing all radically successful people have in common: their ferocious drive and hunger for success makes them never give up."
- Bernard Marr, business author

In a recent blog post, Bernard Marr gave several examples of business leaders who have persevered to become wildly successful. On his list he included such people as Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Gates. He pointed out that all had experienced multiple failures before hitting the jackpot.

This got me thinking about those who work in the social sector. I wondered who might qualify as a "radically successful" person in that world. Marr's list didn't include anyone from this group. And, as I thought about possible candidates, I considered how best to decide who qualified. All of the individuals touted by Marr had generated vast wealth as a result of their perseverance. That measure just wouldn’t cut it for those working in the social sector. 

So, I decided to base my selections on those who had never given up, and ultimately had a huge positive impact on the world. Impact is not so easy to measure, but I think we can all agree that we know it when we see it. So here is my initial stab at a list of “radically successful” people from the social sector:


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Mother Teresa: During her career as the founder of a nonprofit organization that focused on helping the poor, she was accused of misusing charitable money and maintaining positive relationships with dictators. Despite her detractors, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: As a Baptist Minister and leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he and his civil rights followers suffered greatly at the hands of the police while demonstrating peacefully. Despite his untimely death, he left an indelible mark and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986.

Cesar Chavez: Founder of the United Farm Workers union, his efforts won vast improvements in wages and working conditions for farm workers. Himself a migrant farm worker born in Yuma, Arizona, he and his family spent many years toiling away in the fields in California after his father lost his Arizona property during the Great Depression.

Mahatma Gandhi: Leader of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi led non-violent campaigns in India to ease poverty, expand women's rights, build religious and ethnic amity, end untouchability, increase economic self-reliance, and achieve Swaraj—the independence of India from British domination. Hated by Winston Churchill and others, he was imprisoned for a number of political offenses over the years.

Nelson Mandela: A South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, Mandela was the first black South African to hold the office, and the first elected in a fully representative, multiracial election. Before being elected, however, Mandela served 27 years in prison.

  • Do you agree?
  • Who else in the social sector has faced failure, but persevered to ultimately make a real difference in the world?
  • Who are your personal social sector heroes, who inspire and light the way for you?
  • What role has perseverance played in their work?
  • What is your "ferocious drive and hunger," and what is the impact that you want to channel that toward?
  • Please share your thoughts.

Karen Ramsey, ACC, CGT, SPHR is the president and CEO of Lead for Good, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping individuals become great nonprofit leaders. A Certified Governance Trainer through BoardSource as well as a Credentialed Coach and Senior Professional in Human Resources, Karen has worked in the nonprofit sector for 12 years and has over 20 years of leadership experience. She teaches NMI 105 High Impact Leadership for Arizona State University’s Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog