No one enjoys failure as an end. Indeed, few enjoy it as a means either. Nevertheless, a failed project or an unsuccessful step in that project can lead to some great insights and some important team building. In the philanthropic and mission-based world, a failure might seem like a daunting lost opportunity or resource that will rebound onto any number of people depending on your organization’s good work. But within this philanthropic world, many are trying to encourage fundraisers and heads of departments to encourage risk-taking and post-failure reconstruction. Not only might the fallout not be as bad as we fear, but the experience might lead to greater opportunities quite soon.
The online “Stanford Social Innovation Review” posted a summation of a conference on philanthropy in 2008 at which a number of sessions dealt with the possibilities of failures and offered case studies of individuals or organizations that took new risks that did not work out. Sean Stannard-Stockton (director of Tactical Philanthropy at Ensemble Capital Management), who wrote that summation, offered these takeaways for ‘failure.’ Pros:
- You share knowledge. Knowledge and capital are all that foundations have, so we must effectively share both.
- You help others avoid common mistakes.
- You improve your own work by valuing self-reflection and learning.
- You reinforce your commitment to impact and effectiveness.
- You potentially harm your grantees.
- You might damage your reputation.
- You might discourage others from taking on high-risk ventures by highlighting the difficulties you’ve encountered.
- You provide fodder for people who are against foundations.
And Jim Canales, the CEO of The James Irvine Foundation, argued that of the cons, only the first one is a real concern and can be mitigated with openness and a back-up plan. The others can actually be reversed by being open with your constituents and your donors, and by pointing out what was learned by the breakdown. Organizations that do such are often considered more trustworthy than those who try to skirt the problem or do not come clean with how they are trying to deal with the fallout (Anyone at BP reading this?).
Mr. Stannard-Stockton’s conclusion is worth quoting in full: “What philanthropy is engaged in is an experiment; an experiment in how we can all make the world a better place. We don’t know what the right answer is. In fact, the ‘answer’ is probably evolving as quickly as we can design experiments. But by being transparent, by sharing successful ideas and failed ideas, by judging ourselves not on the outcomes of each grant, but on the body of knowledge that we contribute to the field, we will truly transform philanthropy.”
More recently, CJ Callen has posted a blog entry in reference to a similar discussion at The fall 2010 conference. She would like to see institutions encourage failure and find ways to build on the experiences without fear of reprisals: “[We shoud] Institute within foundations a culture of learning in which failure is a necessary byproduct of the process of leading, including having a special prize for the team that made the biggest blunder and figured out a way to use it to move forward.”
Brave thinking, which is what is likely necessary to keep philanthropic organizations moving forward even as the economy is not. The way to success is probably never in the opposite direction of failure anyway, so we might want to be prepared to build on both. How has your organization ‘failed’ in the last 18 months/in the face of the Recession? Could share with us what it was, and how you survived and thrived afterward?