At three recent philanthropy gatherings*, I’ve 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.
Why is it still 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, and that there is someone in the role of spotter – observing your performance with a frame of reference of how to do it better, giving you timely feedback on how to improve. And you can see the results of your improved performance. 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 you’ll 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 CEP: 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?
*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.
What would it take to promote a more open discussion of failure in philanthropy? What benefits would that provide?