Tag Archives: 2023

Honest Feedback Reduces Philanthropic Failure Rates

philanthropy failure feedback

Fail Festivals are a celebration of failure as a mark of leadership and innovation in pushing the boundaries of what is possible in philanthropy.

In the spirit of examining our mistakes and learning from failure as we go beyond the easy and the simple, the Florida Philanthropic Forum recently hosted at Fail Festival at their Statewide Summit on Philanthropy.

Philanthropy Feedback Problem

One theme that cut across all the presentations is a lack of honest feedback in philanthropy.  There are often several layers of power dynamics and cultural norms that inhibit honest feedback, including:

  • Grantees scared of offending a major donor
  • Staff not wanting to share negative news
  • Peers unwilling to tell friends the truth

It takes an open mind and an open personality that embraces failure as a normal business experience to solicit and accept feedback as a true sign of caring and involvement.

How to Encourage Philanthropy Feedback

Soliciting and listening to feedback is a critical strategy in philanthropy. It is the first step in integrating feedback to enhance program effectiveness and fostering a more inclusive and impactful form of philanthropy.

1. Listen to Front Line Staff

The people closest to a problem are often closest to the solution. Actively engage with staff and community leaders and solicit their insights through various feedback mechanisms. Listen to the needs and challenges within a community with direct conversations and indirect  surveys and feedback forms.

2. Address Power Dynamics

Power dynamics can inhibit open communication. Approach feedback sessions as equal partners in the development process. This is one reason why leaders always go first in Fail Festivals – to show everyone that failure happens to everyone, and that’s okay.

3. Act on Feedback

Effective philanthropic feedback isn’t just about collecting ideas. It’s also about actively incorporating  the input into the program planning, implementation, and evaluation phases of projects.  Then ensuring that interventions are responsive and adaptive to changing contexts.

4. Showcase Changes

The final step is very important. Once programs change based on feedback, makes sure those who gave the feedback are aware that they effected the changes. This builds trust that feedback is listened to and acted upon, promotes transparency and collaboration, and creates meaningful engagement and feedback in future efforts.

5 Ways to Talk About Failure at Your Work

talk about failure at work

I recently led a Fail Festival for Grantmakers In Aging’s annual conference. It was wonderful to participate in-person again after hosting virtual Fail Fests during the pandemic.

GIA is a community of funders mobilizing money and ideas to strengthen resources for us, as we age. They were excited for their members to speak about their failures in supporting older adults and how we can all learn to speak about failure in our organizations.

5 Ways to Talk About Failure at Work

I was honored when their CEO brought forth four ideas from the Fail Festival in her keynote presentation to close the conference. She inspired many members to reflect on their organization’s culture and adopt these themes.

1. Recognize and Accept Failure

Life and Fail Festivals teach us that failure happens. Failure is multifaceted, nuanced, and occurring right now in each of our organizations. We all know it. Now accept it. Then talk about it and learn from it.

Your organization does not need to have a Fail Fest each year to recognize that failure happens and to learn from it. The point is not to celebrate failure for the sake of a good laugh. We want to celebrate failure as innovation and learning.

2. Honestly Talk About Failure

We should all do a better job of talking about failure openly in our organizations. There are many ways to do this.

  • We can start by being more honest with our staff.
  • We can be more accepting with grantees and partners.
  • We can even have our own internal Fail Fests.

Whatever method we choose, the Fail Fest concept should give you strength to take calculated risks, to think big, invest in the big leaps moving us all in a new direction.

3. Encourage Innovations

How can we encourage innovation in our own organizations? In our partners and grantees? Here is an idea: fail small, fast, and open.

Set up and fund experiments – too small for log frames or onerous reporting requirements, but large enough to try out an idea. Then shower your innovators with these grants. The only requirement is to honestly, openly test a specific theory of change and document the results.

Do not anticipate success with all the ideas that you invest in. In fact, expect multiple failures, just like a venture capitalist. Invest in the ideas that work, don’t sweat the ideas that do not.

Crucially, have everyone present their idea and result publicly – so we can also learn faster.

4. Demand a Minimum Level of Failure

If failure is a mark of innovation and risk taking, then we should be demanding a minimum level of failure as a proxy for how innovative an organization is.

Say something like a 10% of projects by number or value.

This is large enough to get staff attention and motivation, new enough that donors and funders will want to support it, but small enough that failure of any one project, or even groups of them, will not cause undue stress for organizational leadership.

5. Make Learning from Failure a Norm

Now along with accepting failure, we should expect the organization to show it learned from that failure – in that project and in their activities overall. And be public about it.

The goal is to establish a level of failure as healthy for the overall philanthropic community – for us, and for donors, and the public in general. So we can get past failure-as-catastrophic mindset and into thinking of failure as risk tolerance in innovation.

In fact, the point of Fail Festival events is to show that failure is an option and it is acceptable – today and throughout the year