Philanthropic Failures Are Not Always a Bad Thing

Yes – there is failure in philanthropy. And it’s a good thing.

Last month, well before the SSIR article,Getting the Best Possible Failures in Philanthropy” was released, I was talking with a funder about taking risks and possible failure. Some – not all – funders are risk averse. I can understand why: resources are limited, and we should be investing them in smart ways. Making a “bad” investment is not something that should be taken lightly – and there is not great appeal to sharing it with the world.

But how many times have we all sat in brainstorming meetings, only to hear, “We tried that before and it didn’t work….” We need to give funders a “safe space” to say the same thing – and tell their colleagues about it. Understanding why it didn’t work can lead to new ideas about how it could work.

Failures can contribute to knowledge in the field, have positive unintended consequences, and can increase the capacity of systems to try other approaches.

Are there “bad failures?” Absolutely. History is littered with examples of philanthropists who failed to secure the legacy they intended. I’ll spare you the myriad of stories that could be shared, but even those bad failures can provide educational insights: (1) Understand and talk to the population that is being served; (2) Embrace and communicate the outcomes you are trying to achieve; (3) Be transparent – with everyone; and (4) Learn from those mistakes – and share them so that others don’t do the same thing. These are relatively simple things to do, but sometimes we forget that it’s the simplest actions that can deliver the most effective solutions.

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