Can I Get an ‘Amen’ for Failure?

The last several days I’ve been attending my fourth Social Impact ExchangeConference. While these conferences are primarily about how the social sector can come together to achieve breakthrough success at a scale commensurate to the problems we face — and have featured stellar organizations such as AARP Experience CorpsThe Nurse-Family Partnership, and this year Project ECHO — I just can’t get my mind off the issue of failure.

In a session Wednesday morning entitled “When is Philanthropy (Ir) Relevant?” Jim Canales, CEO of the California-based James Irvine Foundation, called on philanthropy to overcome what he argues is its history of “underperformance.”  Normally, I just shrug off such critiques of philanthropy as either willful ignorance of our real (if fraught) impact from outsiders or, when from insiders, as a trendy posture of self-loathing affected by many philanthropic leaders (who sometimes seem embarrassed by their positions).  However, having listened to Mr. Canales on many occasions and learned a great deal over the years from how the Irvine Foundation does its work,  I have great respect for his thinking.

Among the reasons he called out for philanthropy’s under-whelming performance is our excessive fear of failure and inability to take risk.  But his view is not Pollyanna-ish, where every dark cloud has a silver lining, rather he insisted on calling failure by its proper name.  When a question from the audience proposed that “failure” might be reframed as “learning experiences,” he agreed that failure was an opportunity to learn, but suggested that it was important to confront the reality of failure and use the right word to describe it.

This is very salient to me because before I formally started at the Foundation in 1997, I traveled to see the final meeting of the grantees in our Generalist Physician Initiative.  I commented at the time that there were few, if any, concrete positive results and yet for years thereafter we (and I) continued to act as if there were.  At the Hartford Foundation, we have had many failures over the years and have often struggled to redefine them as “differently-abled successes.”

So why is it so hard?  First, we have strong relationships with our grantees.  We know that labeling their efforts as “failed” will add insult to injury.  Even when the failure is clearly ours at a strategic level rather than at a grantee’s operational level, we sometimes fear damaging the reputation of a grantee (and ours too, I’m sure).  We often fear to expose failures when we know we will need the good will of a grantee for a revised effort.  We sometimes fear that by adding negative evidence we might legitimize the unacceptable status quo and give comfort to naysayers.  And of course, in our enthusiasm we also get trapped by reporting early successes and good process as if it were the same as proven impact.

In the business literature I’ve seen a flurry of ideas like “failure parties” to compensate for risk aversion – suggesting that other sectors struggle too.  Failure is an opportunity to learn, but only when we face it squarely, even admitting that sometimes we just don’t understand what went wrong.  Failures are inevitable, but only failing to act ensures that failure will have the last word.

Chris Langston is the Program Director at the John A. Hartford Foundation, a private foundation located in New York City working to improve the health of older Americans. View an excerpt of his presentation at last year’s Conference.