“This is the story of a philanthropic initiative that did not meet the expectations of its many stakeholders. Given the challenging social problems that foundations and our grantees try to solve, we should expect that we will often fail to achieve our shared aspirations. When this happens, we should seize the opportunity to understand the causes in order to improve our own performance and benefit other working in the field.”—From the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation report, Hard Lessons about Philanthropy & Community Change from the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative
The Hewlett Foundation report (PDF) quoted from above is widely seen as candidly self-critical on the foundation’s $20 million comprehensive community initiative with language in the foundation president’s cover letter describing one of the site’s self-destruction and calling the entire effort a “great disappointment.” More recently, Hewlett held what appears to be an internal competition among its grantmaking departments for each to identify one grant that fell short of expectations and provide an analysis of what went wrong and what the foundation should learn from the experience.
Other foundations and other institutions are increasingly congratulating themselves for their new openness to “embracing failure” – being willing to talk about mistakes, admit them, and try to learn from them. Examples of proponents of learning from failure include the Annie E. Casey Foundation (as evidenced by Casey VP Robert Giloth’s edited volume, Mistakes to Success(PDF), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Case Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the trade associations promoting small foundations, the Asian Development Bank (PDF), and major international corporations.
Is this posturing or is it for real? And to what end? Will foundations admit that they completely screwed up, or will they suggest, as Hewlett ultimately did with its comprehensive community initiative, that the grants were mistimed – that the communities weren’t really ready for the foundation’s help? All too frequently, the discussions of failure are really not about failure at all. They are discussions of programs that fell somewhat short of expectations. Even more frequently, the program failures are in fact small successes – the programs that didn’t achieve quite what they were intended to achieve, but still left the communities measurably better than they were before the foundation’s intervention.
Rather than emphasizing small successes, foundations should focus on failures that may be hardwired into some foundation’s DNA. This means not only using foundation-funded evaluations and pilot projects to learn from, but also to look closer at day-to-day foundation grantmaking.
The core critique to be made of foundation “mistakes” is the tendency to focus on lessons from projects, whether partial achievements or total flops, at an elevated level that misses a crucial factor. Foundation grants deal with, affect, benefit, and disrupt real people, not abstractions, and foundation mistakes come with often serious consequences for people and communities left high and dry. All too often, funders are motivated by the attractiveness of their idea, their vision for a community, and the sense that they have a model that can yield benefits far beyond local communities. Funders sometimes forget that there are people involved in these experiments.
Some funders fail to see that the best innovations occur when they invest in building community capacity and community infrastructure, when they invest in the ability of a community to identify, address, and commit to grappling with its own problems. In a recent article about government in the Democracy Journal, the two authors suggest that the best role of government is to establish the “what” –the ideals and the goals for society – but to let a radical localism that embeds the implementation of solutions to communities and their infrastructure of community organizations establish the “how.”
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