Lessons from Mistakes

March 28, 2011

NonProfit Quarterly reports on the increase in numbers of philanthropic organisations congratulating themselves for ’embracing failure’.  The writer is somewhat sceptical as to whether this sudden rise in public posturing is for real or not and suggests that foundations should focus on the failures that are ‘hard wired’ into the structure of organisations.  Focussing on small successes can often lead to a blindness towards more fundamental mistakes that perpetuate failure.


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.

In a short experiment NPQ asked foundation insiders for ideas on how to have more meaningful conversations about mistakes, and more importantly how to learn from them.  The list makes for interesting reading.

What causes the problem?

  1. The learning predispositions of senior management
  2. Overpromising the benefits of foundation ideas
  3. Unrealistic timeframes
  4. Pushing evidence-based grantmaking beyond the realm of evidence
  5. Board culture
  6. The power imbalance
  7. The foundation business model

And strategies for learning from mistakes?

  1. Inviting criticism
  2. Right-sized grant reporting
  3. Letting nonprofits develop their own plans for action and letting them exercise self-determination
  4. Working through affinity groups for field learning
  5. Changing behavior as a result of learning from mistakes


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