It’s OK to Fail

(This is a guest post from Sara Melillo, Program officer, McCormick Tribune Foundation, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Sara Melillo

In the non-profit and philanthropic sectors, failure is not an option, yet it’s expected in the corporate and technology sectors. At least that was one provocative assertion of Brian Trelstad of the Acumen Fund, one of the panelists for the Social Entrepreneurship: New Approaches to Changing the World.

The packed social entrepreneurship session covered a lot of ground, but the ‘To fail or not to fail’ question struck me as most relevant to those working at traditional private foundations.

Social entrepreneurship investors and grantmakers seek out people and projects that apply innovative business practices for social change. Like the corporate and tech worlds, these investors take risks and don’t fear failure. Invests can, and are encouraged, to make money. They don’t have to play it safe.

The catch on failure: You need to learn from the flops. So what’s holding back traditional foundations from investing in so-called risky projects? A bunch of reasons — the risk of embarrassment, being reluctant to change (we’ve always funded X), legal technicalities, etc.

The rise of social entrepreneurship provides us a timely opportunity to re-examine our fear of failure and a number of examples of non-traditional investments that worked. Sure, it’s risky, but that can be outweighed by finding some sustainable projects and strategies we never would have considered.

One Comment

  1. Tera says:

    I completely agree with you about learning from failure. It’s important. Social entrepreneurship is a lot like starting a small business, small business owners have been learning from each other for centuries! It’s refreshing to see a post advocating that nonprofits do fail and it’s okay, just learn from it! It seems so obvious, as we do it in our everyday lives, you don’t continue to walk on burning coals after you’ve done it once. Nonprofits taking on social entrepreneurship just need to learn from their failures too.