I appreciate the lively response to my last post asking why it’s so difficult to talk about failure in philanthropy. Commenters brought up important points, including that it can be difficult to decide when failure has actually happened – when do you know to throw in the towel? – and that it’s not just admitting failure but learning from it that generates insight and improvement.
I would also note an incisive piece in Nonprofit Quarterly assessing the failure of the social impact bond designed to reduce juvenile recidivism on Rikers Island. Cohen and Zelnick rightly point out that what is being hailed as a partial success – that because the program did not hit its targets, taxpayers did not have to pay for it – masks a more complex reality. Recidivism was not reduced (no upside there), and taxpayer dollars were tapped in the form of in-kind time by city officials. This example reinforces one of the points made by a commenter on my original post: what counts as failure depends on who’s doing the telling, and when.
I see two strands of conversation worth pursuing, given the interest my original post has generated as part of an overall mini-trend toward more reckoning with failure in philanthropy.
One is to explore what it looks like to have candid conversations between funders and nonprofits about real issues of execution and responsibility (on all sides!) in a context beyond the one-on-one grant relationship. I come to this with an instinct that a more public version of such conversations would be salutary, but also deep wariness about doing it in a way that’s constructive instead of harmful.
- Are there stages by which such conversations evolve? Do you need to start with self-reflection, then within your own organization, then within a trusted network of peers, then more publicly? That’s an awful lot of steps.
- Perhaps the best starting place is not talking about failure within a particular grant relationship, but in the context of a topic of shared interest in which the participants don’t have a direct stake. One can imagine a study group dedicated to reviewing examples of initiatives that have failed, and seeking to generate and apply insight from them – with an audience of funders and nonprofits who aren’t part of that field. Might that be a less threatening way to get started?
- Because trying to have a conversation within a field about what worked and what didn’t is incredibly difficult. I think about the “four pillars” strategy in the immigration reform movement, which national funders and nonprofits developed together after a failed attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2006-07. They analyzed why they lost and how they could overcome those disadvantages, and then moved resources and effort toward filling those gaps. What makes cases like that possible? Where else does this happen?
The other strand of conversation worth pursuing is to ask what it looks like within an organization, and specifically a foundation, to be open to acknowledging, learning from, and acting on failure. What values and motivations need to be in place? Who are the change agents and culture bearers? How do incentives need to change? Are there particular structures or systems that make it easier to learn from and act on failure? What do a higher risk tolerance and a culture of inquiry look like in practice? I feel like we know a lot about this in the field, but the threads of conversation aren’t necessarily organized.
- Part of the challenge is, who owns failure within the institution? In other words, who’s responsible for identifying it, naming it, lifting it up, creating a safe space in which to discuss it, making sure meaning is derived, and then following through on application of that insight? Those responsibilities fall across a number of function – evaluation, HR, programs, senior leadership, board. What role should be the steward or the shepherd ensuring that those functions are integrated in pursuit of mining improvement from failure, and what resources or tools does that person or team need?
Thanks again to all have engaged on this topic, and to the organizations that have begun hosting conversations among funders about being more open about failure. Do the strands of conversation I suggest above seem relevant, and worth pursuing? What kinds of spaces could we create for more authentic funder-nonprofit dialogue? And how can we get clearer about the organizational culture needed to support openness about failure?