Back in May of 2008 I wrote a piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review about Jim Canales of the Irvine Foundation and his challenge to philanthropy to fail more frequently. Jim’s point is that failure goes hand in hand with taking risks and if philanthropy never fails it means no risk is being taken and if no risk is being taken then the chance to produce high levels of social impact are off the table. My article followed up on a podcast I had recorded with Jim that generated significant commentary from readers.
So why don’t more foundation’s talk openly about failure? One obvious reason is the worry of reputational damage. In my article I took this concern on:
There is a risk to reputational damage if all of your colleagues refuse to recognize mistakes and foundations pretend to be infallible forces for good. Canales and Paul Brest (from the Hewlett Foundation) 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. Their colleagues hung them out to dry, but the lack of other foundations taking similar steps makes Canales, in his own words, “the poster child for failure in philanthropy.” Still, he hasn’t suffered any reputational damage. Instead he is asked to lead sessions at philanthropy conferences.
But now we have a new advocate for the upside of failure: Pittsburgh Foundation president Grant Oliphant. In a new video interview produced by the Communications Network, Grant makes the case for failure.