Another Perspective on Failure

Jul 31, 2007, 11:58 AM, Posted by

The New York Times recently carried an article, Foundations Find Benefits in Facing Up to Failures, by Stephanie Strom (note that registration may be required to view the article). The piece discusses efforts by a number of philanthropies “to disclose and analyze their failures.” This is a trend, she reports, driven by a new generation of foundation leaders and new foundations founded by high-tech entrepreneurs who brought a culture of accountability with them from the for-profit world.

“Failure” in philanthropy is an interesting concept, one that is not as stark as the black-and-white bottom line of the for-profit world. Goodness knows, philanthropy can benefit from the rigor and accountability of the for-profit sector. But social problems are not the same as business challenges. Importing unquestioned the concepts of “failure” and “success” from the business world risks a grave misunderstanding what philanthropy does and how hard it can be to, say, improve a failing public education system.

Not all “failures” are created equal. “Failures” that result from poor planning or poor execution are not good things. But in some cases, a “failure” can be a very good thing.  It can contribute incredibly valuable information that brings the next effort that much closer to success. The point should not be whether we “face up” to our failures. Rather, it should be whether we learn from the work that we support and whether we share those lessons as broadly and clearly as possible. For this, philanthropy should be accountable; not doing so would be a failure at the enterprise level.

On the Pioneer Portfolio, we have yet another perspective on “failure.” From a high-level perspective, “failure” for us is a measure of success. Our charge is to look for highly innovative, high risk projects that have the potential for high pay offs—in our case, projects that may create dramatic improvements in health and health care. If all of the projects we support “succeed” to some extent, then we aren’t pushing the envelope hard enough.

Finally, I’ll note that RWJF has since the 1970s funded independent evaluations of its major programs and encouraged the evaluators to publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals. We also have a Grant Results unit that publishes reports on the outcomes of our grants (more than 2000 are available online). And finally, for 10 years now, we have published an annual volume, To Improve Health and Health Care, which features independent, long-form articles that discuss our work.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.