A lot of people like to pretend that philanthropy is easy. That every grant meets its objectives and that not only do foundations innovate and take risk, but they still manage to knock the ball out of the park with every decision.
Except innovating and never failing are mutually exclusive. In fact doing anything of note while at the same time consistently avoiding failure is impossible. If you never fall and skin your knee, then while you might not admit it to yourself, you’re hanging out in the kiddie section of the playground.
Jim Canales, the CEO of The James Irvine Foundation, isn’t one of these people. He embraces the idea that “failure” is not a mark of someone to look down your nose at, but a mark of someone who is taking risks and doing difficult things. Last year at the 2007 Council on Foundations conference, Jim was a panelist at the Demonstrating Impact session along with Joel Fleishman, author of The Foundation: A Great American Secret and James Knickman of the New York State Health Foundation. While the session was nominally about showing the world how much impact philanthropy is having, at its core the argument was that by being transparent and honest about what works and does not work in philanthropy, we will truly demonstrate impact.
Yesterday, Jim was back at it, this time with the brilliant Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy. The session was called “The Advantage of Sharing Failures”. Phil pointed out as the session began that while the COF Conference has long booked sessions about innovations, a couple of years ago you would not have seen a session about failure.
Jim went through a list of the pros and cons of sharing failure:
- You share knowledge. As foundations, knowledge and capital is all we have, so we must effectively share both.
- You help others avoid the repetition of common mistakes.
- Improve your own work by placing a value on self reflection and on learning.
- Reinforces your commitment to impact and effectiveness.
- Potentially harm your grantees.
- You might damage your reputation.
- By highlighting the difficulties you run into, you might discourage others from taking on high risk ventures.
- Provide fodder for people who are against foundations.
While I think that all of the Pros are correct, I think only the potential to harm your grantees is a legitimate Con (and even this I think should be overcome by a foundation’s obligation to protect people that the grantee are serving over protecting the grantees). The other items are legitimate fears, but are not true risks (although Jim stuck with his point of view that they were when I asked him how real these risks were during the Q&A).
While there is a certain risk to reputational damage if all of your colleagues refuse to ever talk about mistakes and we slide back into a time where foundations pretend that they are infallible forces for good, I will simply point to Jim Canales and Paul Brest (from Hewlett) who both published reports on their mistakes last year. As far as reputational risk, what they got for their trouble was coverage in the New York Times, an op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy and an enhancement of their already stellar reputations. And they got all of this even though for the most part, their colleauges haven’t followed their lead. Effectively hanging them out to dry, the lack of other foundations taking similar steps has made Jim (in his own words), “The poster child for failure in philanthropy”. And yet still he hasn’t suffered any reputational damage. Instead he’s asked to lead sessions at the COF conference.
I think highlighting difficulties and then having nothing bad happen to you (as is the case with Brest and Canales and will likely be the case in 99% of future cases), encourages people to take risks. With Canales leading the way, it is the people who are not joining him in sharing failures that are discouraging other people (ie “Everyone applauded Jim, but they aren’t following suit and sharing. Maybe I shouldn’t either.”)
Does talking about failure provide fodder for people who are anti-foundations? Last year at the Demonstrating Impact session, a member of the audience who identified herself as a professor of marketing stood up to say that people who admit their mistakes publicly are viewed with more trust afterwards. ‘Nuff said.
At the Demonstrating Impact session, panelist James Knickman summed it all up for me:
“We need to frame our release of “failures” as an attempt to learn. No one tells scientists they are a failure when one of their experiments don’t work!”
And my comment at the time, which I stand by now was:
That’s it right there. 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.
Look, I know that this stuff is hard. But moderator Toni Freeman of the Duke Endowment told a wonderful story that highlighted the fact that this is hard, but that you can do it. She described how she had decided to take a “firefighter training class” as part of a leadership training. She was told “you are going to climb up to the 7th floor and jump out the window”. She thought “that sounds good!”, but standing on the ledge, every fiber of her body was telling her not to jump. But she did. And then she climbed back up and jumped out of the window two more times.
And each time it was easier.