Two Major Foundations that Share Failures

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Laura Callanan of McKinsey & Company.

By Laura Callanan

image I was very impressed by the Learning from Failure session on Monday at the GEO conference.  Bringing to life some of the stories shared by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in their recent publication, this session also covered experiences from the Wallace Foundation.  

Both of these funders are seriously focused on assessing their work, codifying knowledge, and communicating it within and beyond their organizations. In rough figures, David Colby estimates RWJF spends 25% of its budget on this kind of learning.  Ed Pauly estimates assessment plus communications represents about 10% of the Wallace budget.  (I assume RWJF’s  focus on medical and health priorities explains the difference in what assessment costs these two national foundations.)

The discussion quickly came into the real world and how difficult we all find it to face our failures.  Since the failure of a foundation usual involves work with their grantees, what’s the standard for a foundation sharing learnings that imply a grantee has failed?  Both RWJF and Wallace described how they communicate with grantees up front and through the grant award agreement how accepting funding comes with obligations to participate in assessment and to share results.

The entire panel wrestled with how to learn from failures, while being sensitive to the individuals who do the work.  There was a distinction drawn between transparency regarding the work, and translucency regarding the people.  Obviously a tough call, but one that made sense to me.  Encouraging innovation, experimentation and honest assessment is a difficult tightrope to walk.