Blog: Amplify

The F and S Words: Failure and Success


At the Council on Foundations Global Grantmaking Institute (GGI), participants grappled with the fact that wicked problems do not have single-sourced solutions, nor is there a clearly demarcated path leading to success in overcoming these problems. Our esteemed faculty gently but ever so consistently prodded us to accept that despite our best intentions as grantmakers, we will fail. This was no easy task in a room full of determined individuals representing foundations with mission statements that express the intention to end poverty and alleviate suffering.

Intuitively, as grantmakers we understand that in the face of the seemingly intractable problems we wish to positively impact, we will falter. In the context of support for social change in the Global South, all of us attending GGI could recount a hair-raising story of unintended consequences of funding strategies and grantmaking gone awry. Not surprisingly, a common thread in these stories was disregard for the essential nature and potency of the credo “Don’t do anything about me without me.” At some point in each story, this principle was not fully examined or was tacitly ignored, with gut-wrenching results for the community the grants were meant to support.  

Few would argue that it is acceptable to perpetuate our mistakes as grantmakers. This is antithetical to the nature of our work. However, when asked by GGI faculty where philanthropy ranks in its transparency in talking about and learning from failures, seminar participants rated the field as very low (3 on a scale of 1-10, with 1 correlating to not at all).

Understanding that the stakes are very high, how do we reverse this unsettling phenomenon? Core to the GGI curriculum-and an answer to this question-is an approach to grantmaking that embraces systems analysis for change, applies the Human Security Framework developed by the United Nations Development Program to identify effective strategies to address complex development issues, and calls for grantmakers to become deliberate leaders. These are additional, essential tools in the global grantmaker’s toolkit.

In part, too, the answer lies in cultivating candor and rewarding honesty in our own organizations, with our grant partners and within our field more broadly. Participants at GGI identified tools they currently use to move this theory to action. Examples included:

  • Staff and trustees at a family foundation agreed that quarterly board reports would highlight two successful grants and at least one failure. (This is key: Tolerance for risk-taking and incentivizing honesty must come from the top if a foundation is truly to become a learning institution.)
  • A grantmaking public charity completed a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) when considering a new program initiative, not on behalf of their grantee, but in partnership with them, building mutual knowledge and trust in the process.
  • A corporate grantmaker holds monthly meetings with her team to analyze failures within the existing grants portfolio. All team members participate, but the leader shares first, identifying where her theory of change may require revision or where grantmaking strategies need recalibration.

These were but a few practices that surfaced as part of a quick brainstorm, but how we encourage candor and learn from our mistakes within and external to our organizations deserves more attention in our field. Building trust, the foundation for candor and transparency, is more likely to occur in a context where grantmakers make longer-term commitments and the risk to grantees of losing funding is more diminished when they talk about what isn’t working. Transparency is also more likely to be present if those most affected by grantmaking decisions are not engaged as implementers or information providers only, but partners in change with a seat at the table where theories of change and ensuing grantmaking strategies are determined.

Key to the GGI curriculum is accepting that learning from mistakes is essential to success and that low rates of failure do not necessarily demonstrate progress in overcoming wicked problems. Rather, lack of failures and learning from those failures can indicate a lack of innovation and low tolerance for the kind of risk-taking that, when guided by the direct experience and expressed needs of communities, holds enormous potential for change.

Susan Beaudry is a philanthropic adviser, an organizational development consultant, and the principal adviser for SB Associates.

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