What To Think When You Fail

Ashley May The Philanthropy Roundtable
Posted: June 20, 2013

Failure is a fact of life. But not in philanthropy, right? The James Irvine Foundation president Jim Canales began the second day of the Social Impact Exchange Conference challenging philanthropists, particularly foundation staffs, to embrace risk and acknowledge failure. From his perspective, philanthropy’s tendency to control, manage, and diminish risk leads to missed opportunities.

As context, Canales cited a paper published by Irvine in 2007 highlighting a misguided investment and their lessons learned. A reporter from the Chronicle of Philanthropy contacted Canales in 2013 to speak about the story: the writer had not seen a likewise report on a Foundation’s failures in six years. Either philanthropy is hitting the mark every time with every grant, or it is quietly forgetting those initiatives that underperform.

At lunchtime, NYC deputy mayor of health and human services Linda Gibbs continued the conversation on failure. In her words, “If it fails, admit it, and end it.” This approach is an integral part of a reform mindset. Particularly in city government work, “You uncover ugly truths that you have to own,” said Gibbs. Any effective leader needs the “willingness to own your own problems.” Even data collection, a seemingly benign activity, is designed in order to see failure and create a new system to address it.

This willingness to change and operate differently is at the heart of innovation. Case Foundation senior fellow Sonal Shah reiterated that any entity, whether in government, philanthropy, or the private sector, needs to have a culture of continuous improvement and adaptation. And in many, many cases, we should expect to fail a lot more often than we’re comfortable with.

But how do you recover from failure, especially if it is public, embarrassing, and perhaps detrimental to your target population? What if you lose credibility with your partners and prevent further work? The risk is high. But the rewards, according to today’s speakers, are great. “It’s okay for you to strike out,” said speaker Michael Chu of Ignia, “but you better strike out swinging for the bleachers.” From his perspective, philanthropy is specifically suited to invest in high-risk pursuits, yielding an especially high financial and social return—with a heavy helping of failure along the way.

Ashley May is project coordinator for The Philanthropy Roundtable’s Economic Opportunity Breakthrough Group. She lives and works in Washington, DC.