(This blog post originally appeared on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website.)
By Matt Forti and Matt Plummer
The philanthropic sector seems to be changing its tune about failure. While some, like former Hewlett Foundation President Paul Brest, have been encouraging philanthropists to talk about their failures (of grants, initiatives, or entire strategies) for years, only more recently has the sector more widely adopted the view that failure can be something positive, an indicator of a willingness to take risks, experiment, and adapt. A number of recent initiatives demonstrate this new outlook: the Case Foundation’s Be Fearless campaign, the Institute of Brilliant Failures Award for Best Learning Moment in international development, the Admitting Failure online community, and the FailFaire conferences. All of these have launched in just the last three years.
While failure can be an incredibly valuable learning tool, research from the private sector suggests that most organizations don’t take a systematic approach to experimentation, and therefore don’t reap the benefits of failure. In 2011, Bridgespan began a series of blogs based on a decade of close client work with philanthropists called “Does Your Philanthropy Have an Adaptive Strategy?” These blogs chronicled an emerging redefinition of strategy from a static towards a more flexible view of what constitutes success, and a greater willingness to prototype ideas, learn from mistakes, and adapt in light of new information and opportunities. A video series of candid conversations with more than 60 philanthropists, recently released by Bridgespan, echoes this approach and provides five insights into how to diagnose, learn from, and improve after failures.
Matthew Plummer is a Senior Associate Consultant in Bridgespan’s Boston Office, playing an integral role in assembling Bridgespan’s video collection “Conversations with Remarkable Givers." Prior to joining Bridgespan, Matthew worked as an operations manager at McMaster-Carr Supply Company.
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