#FailEpic, continued

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?


Tags: , , , , ,

6 Responses to “#FailEpic, continued”

  1. Jon Stahl Says:

    Love this post and its predecessor. A few thoughts on failure:

    1) Totally agree that it’s super important and we are failing at it. 😉

    2) It ties into hierarchy and philanthropists’ tendency to “do to” rather than “do as.” “Doing to” makes us brittle. Earning credibility by “doing as” makes us robust and thus comfortable to fail openly.

    3) I have seen lots of stories of failure. Many of them have been great, but I’ve also seen many that I have found unsatisfying. The key differentiator between an effective failure story and a failed failure story for me seems to be whether the storyteller locates themselves in the story.

    Bad failure stories turn into “This failed, but it wasn’t my fault.” Good failure stories tend to be more like, “This failed, and here’s the role I played in that failure, and here’s what I learned.”

  2. Wayan Says:

    Jon, your last point (owning the failure) is why all my Fail Fest events start with the highest paid/most important person going first to show that even the mightiest fail, and every story is told with the speaker as part of the failure – “I…” or “We…” not “Them” or “They” – to show participation in the failure.

    Ownership of failure is key.

    This also means that some great failures go untold and unlearned from, though I submit that those that partake in the failure must learn its lessons before anyone else can learn from it.

  3. Wayan Says:


    I’ve found that foundations (or pretty much any donor) often do need to go through a multi-step process to talk about failure.

    Foundations usually want to do private staff-only Fail Festival to talk about the issues that foundations face in delivering on their mission without sharing their errors with a sometimes callous public. Associations of foundations have found great success in “public” Fail Festivals as multi-organization events, such as annual meetings, where people can bond over shared experiences across organizational boundaries.

    Finally, donors of all types join in larger industry-wide events, such as my annual international development Fail Festivals in Washington, DC, and London, UK. There, donors and implementers talk about their shared experiences with failure, again always with “I” or “We” as failure doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

    In fact, the 2013 Fail Festival DC was “won” by a USAID staffer: http://www.ictworks.org/2013/12/09/fail-fest-dc-2013-cathartic-and-comedic/

  4. Antony Bugg-Levine Says:

    Thanks for catalyzing this conversation, Chris.

    I’ve always been quite surprised at the reluctance among philanthropists to admit failure in grantmaking. When I consider the portfolio of ~$40MM in grants and PRIs that I ran as a program officer, some were unmitigated successes for both the foundation and grantee, some did not contribute to the foundation’s goals (but helped the grantee to varying degrees), and a few made little positive difference at all. I’m proud of the work we did because the portfolio as a whole appears successful. Like a venture capitalist I always thought that a successful portfolio would be the measure of success, rather than avoiding any failures.

    Is that attitude reckless or profligate? I don’t think so because I am aware of how complex social change work is. I wonder if the reluctance to admit that all good grantmaking portfolios will include some failures indicates a lack of appreciation for the complexity of what we do. This probably begins with foundation boards who demand unrealistic levels of certainty and management teams that do not feel empowered to push back. This demand for unrealistic certainty then cascades through the system, down to individual grant applications that promise specific actions and results when may be largely unpredictable.

    Chris Langston is also right to point out the multiple meanings of failure. A grant that failed to meet the foundation’s goals may have been successful for the grantees’ goals. And even when failure was unambiguous for both sides, while the foundation can likely talk about failure with relative impunity, we’re not going to want to impugn our grantees’ reputations.

    An introspective conversation about failure from which we can learn is going to require not only trusted spaces within foundationworld but greater trust between funders and their grantees. Nonprofit Finance Fund increasingly works with funders and their grantees to help create the conditions in which this trust can grow. For those interested, I explored this theme recently with your colleague Hilary Pennington in a recent interview (http://nonprofitfinancefund.org/blog/funder-dialogue-hilary-pennington-ford-foundation) and through Survey data with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (https://philanthropy.com/article/CharitiesFoundations-Keep/229851). This has huge pay-offs when it works–and would help facilitate better learning from inevitable failure as we set out to do important work in complex systems.

  5. Brian Walsh Says:

    As always, Antony puts it well: “An introspective conversation about failure from which we can learn is going to require not only trusted spaces within foundationworld but greater trust between funders and their grantees.”

    As we deal with the complexity of social change, we need better mechanisms to share – share what works, share what doesn’t, and even share what we’re not sure what to make of quite yet. Ultimately, we need to share in order to inform others and in order to learn ourselves. We need so share insight (which is why we called the effort that Chris and I are involved with the Fund for Shared Insight: http://www.fundforsharedinsight.org/)

    These mechanisms for sharing may take the form of “trusted spaces” and/or public forums. But no matter the form they take, in order for these mechanisms to be productive, participants have to come to them from a position of openness – an openness towards sharing and an openness towards listening. Indeed, we might even call this openness humility. Humility that we don’t have all the answers, but are willing to engage in good faith with others who are wrestling with the same questions.

  6. CardonaC Says:

    Thank you all for these great comments! Clearly this topic is evergreen for a reason.

    Jon: “‘Doing to’ makes us brittle.” That’s exactly it. I’m reminded of the idea of “white fragility,” that people freak out when confronted with the reality of white supremacy and structural racism. Part of that is caught up in your other point, that good failure stories situate the teller.

    Wayan: Love the idea of Failfests, and seeing them in a sequence from internal to sector-level. I’ll check out the videos and loop back with you offline, thanks for sharing.

    Antony: I think there are legitimate obstacles and lame obstacles to openness. Once you get past the lame ones, there’s at least one legitimate one, which you’ve named: we don’t want to impugn grantee reputations. THAT’s one we really need to tackle to have authentic conversations with funders and nonprofits as you rightly suggest. How can we get past that one? Per Wayan’s comment, do we start in a trusted network, hash out the story in a way that works for all, and then try rolling it out more broadly? In what kind of context?

    Brian: humility is key, but I especially like the idea of “good faith” – how do we get to THAT in public grantee-funder conversations, per Anthony and Wayan’s comments.

    Appreciate the lively discussion!

Leave a Reply