« Why Venture Philanthropy Is the Future of Giving | Main | [Review] 'In Defense of a Liberal Education' »


August 06, 2015

Failure_stampAt three recent philanthropy gatherings*, I heard open discussions of failure in grantmaking strategy and execution. The plural of "anecdote" is not "data," but I'm heartened by this mini-trend.

Still, why is it so hard to talk about failure in philanthropy?

There's no incentive. Under what circumstances is one encouraged to fail? Working out, playing sports, rehearsing for a performance – these are all activities where you're meant to try something new, see how it goes, fix what didn't work, and try again. You get immediate signals that tell you what's not working, and often someone is there to tell you what to do instead, or how to do better. What's crucial in those cases is that you're not alone – there is someone in the role of spotter, observing your performance with a frame of reference of how to do it better and giving you timely feedback on how to improve. And you can see the results. Signals about performance in philanthropy travel much more slowly, if at all, and the roles are not nearly as clear. As discussed in a prior post, most foundations are minimally staffed, so there's not a lot of space for an HR function. And most program staff are recruited for their content expertise, not because they're good managers. So you can't count on there being a spotter for you within your foundation. Don't get me wrong, people within the foundation do pay attention to what you're doing, and you are called to account if you don't follow the rules. But those rules aren't necessarily set up to support performance or performance improvement. Which brings up another point....

There are disincentives, real and imagined. Boards are often risk-averse. (But what exactly are they worried about?) Senior leadership may be launching a new initiative that they've had to persuade the board or outside stakeholders is worth taking on, and they don't want to give ammunition to their critics. (But is anyone actually paying attention?) There are internal cultures of perfectionism. (But what are the actual consequences of imperfection?) The audience with whom you're sharing may not understand what it takes to make a good grant and will take your failure out of context. (But what's so bad about having to explain yourself?)

There's not enough context. Foundations are not good about telling the story of their work. On the one hand, you don't want to brag, when it's really the nonprofits to whom you provide support that are doing the hard work. On the other hand, if no one ever has any understanding of where you're coming from and why you operate the way you do, then it becomes especially hard to talk about when things don't go right. If the first time people are hearing about you is when something goes wrong, you're going to get an unsympathetic reading and be on the defensive from the get-go.

It's not easy for anyone. Let's not underestimate the fragility of the human ego: it stings when something doesn't work out, especially when, like a lot of foundation folks I've met (and am), you're a high achiever with a passion for this work who feels lucky and privileged to play this kind of role.

The stakes are comparatively high. I owe this insight to Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy: failure in philanthropy is not the same as failure in a commercial enterprise, the kind where "fail fast" is a popular mantra. If the newest tech product launch fails, the consequences are not the same as if a social impact bond working on recidivism among juvenile offenders fails. There's actually an interesting discussion to be had about the loss of jobs if a business effort fails vs. the failure to receive services if a nonprofit effort fails (how well do we know the service works, etc.), but some other time.

What other reasons are there for why it's hard to talk about failure in philanthropy? How can we overcome them? What would it take to promote a more open discussion of failure in philanthropy? What benefits would that provide?

Share you thoughts in the comments section below....

Headshot_chris_cardona-- Chris Cardona is program officer for philanthropy at the Ford Foundation. This post first ran in The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" and was re-posted on Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets' blog.

*I note that all three discussions happened in grantmaker-only spaces. There's value in a trusted network of peers, as my colleague Brian Walsh calls it, that provides a space in which to be more open. I look forward to the day when such conversations can happen in broader public networks.


« Previous post    Next post »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Posted by Davidccolby  |   August 07, 2015 at 09:21 AM

Admitting failure is hard, but that is only the first step. Learning from failure is the crucial second step and the one that makes admitting failure so valuable. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation spend $31 million on the SUPPORT demonstration to improve end of life care. The evaluation of SUPPORT found no changes in end of life care due to the intervention. RWJF and the Soros Foundation took the lessons from this failed program and developed grant making that improved end of life care in the United States. This example of failure and others at RWJF are available for free in four chapters in the RWJF Anthology XIII: Good Ideas at the Time, New Direction, Midcourse, The National Health Care Purchasing Institute, and The Role of Failure in Philanthropic Learning. They provide valuable follow-up reading to this column. David Colby, former V.P. for Research & Evaluation at RWJF

Posted by Chris Cardona  |   August 07, 2015 at 10:29 AM

Thanks David, that's a critical point. Admitting failure is a means to an end: getting better at our own work and helping others gets better at theirs. And learning is essential to that. Appreciate your providing a specific example!

It feels like there are stages in the conversation around failure. One is what I captured in the post: sharing stories within a trusted network. Another is sharing stories that are failures but end in success, like the one you shared. Those are both valuable.

Thinking ahead, so to speak, I wonder about open-ended stories of failure. Where you learned something, but it wasn't something you were able to improve as a result. It just didn't work, and there wasn't an upside. We'll really know we've advanced in the conversation about failure when we can talk about those cases.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

Subscribe to PhilanTopic


Guest Contributors

  • Laura Cronin
  • Derrick Feldmann
  • Thaler Pekar
  • Kathryn Pyle
  • Nick Scott
  • Allison Shirk

Tweets from @PNDBLOG

Follow us »

Filter posts