Are you sitting comfortably? Let’s talk about failure

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Caroline Davies, former Programme Manager at SHINE and Head of Community Programmes at the Walton Charity blogs for SHINE about embracing failure in the charity sector.

Let’s deal with this F-word first. Not everyone in the charity sector likes the word failure. For many it is an emotionally laden term that has overly negative connotations. Other sectors, the technology sector is particular, are far more comfortable with term. There are ways though to jettison the baggage that failure comes with to turn it into an opportunity – a starting point, rather than an end point as one charity professional put it.

Firstly, let’s flip it. Failure is usually the result of action that has gone wrong. But we rarely ask ourselves what is the risk of not doing something? Charities exist to innovate – to try and find solutions to complex and long-standing social issues. We may not see failure immediately but often the failure to act, to try something different, to innovate can lead to a slow death of a programme or even a whole organisation.

Or flip in another way. Who wouldn’t want to work in an innovative environment? One where failure is not vilified, employees are encouraged and feel safe to experiment, where there are high levels of collaboration with colleagues and the organisational hierarchy is flat. Sounds exciting? If, in order to get to this, we need to get better at failing and dealing with failure, both personally and organisationally then it might be worth tackling the word head on.

But let’s not get caught up in semantics. If a more nuanced approach works as a starting point, then let’s talk about ‘what hasn’t worked’ if that helps organisations focus on the learning from that failure, as that is what we are most interested in. Failure is only valuable if we have learnt from what went wrong, shared that learning with others so they don’t make the same mistakes, and tried something different next time or used that learning to develop something better.

I have spent the last 9 months working with two colleagues from other organisations to look at this questions. We have read the literature on learning from failure, surveyed professionals from other charities and had some fascinating conversations with charity leaders. We will be offering some practical insights into how organisations can get better at talking about and learning from failure, share our learning on how organisational culture can be more amenable to learning from failure and the critical role leaders can play both in setting team or organisational cultures and developing processes or embedding practices. However, what I want to talk about here is the role that funders can and should be playing to support organisations to be bolder and braver to find and scale solutions to society’s deep-seated problems.

Funders need to build strong relationships with grantees, to foster dialogue and develop trust so that charities and funders are more likely to have honest conversations about what is working and what is not. Funders need to understand (and many do) that social change is complex and rarely linear. Funders should be open to the idea that funded programmes may need to adapt as the context changes or the initial hypothesis or approach needs re-thinking and they should commend grantees that show the initiative to respond to changing circumstances. This also means that reporting systems need to help and not hinder this type of approach. As funders we may be very supportive and flexible in our conversations with grantees, but if our reporting requirements are traditional and inflexible, are overly focused on outputs or objectives agreed perhaps 2 or 3 years ago with no thought to changing circumstances then we are being at best inconsistent or at worse dishonest. Moreover, any reporting will have little in the way of insights that are useful to share with others in the sector.

Funders should continue to question whether the type of grants they offer will enable them to achieve the impact they seek. Would staged funding help risk-averse trustees to be more open to offering experimental grants? Can early stage, small grants have different success criteria, which interrogate the process (and the learning from that process) as much as the outcome? Would a greater proportion of unrestricted grants support organisations who want to innovate? How about a partnership around a specific theme with another funder who is more open to taking risks? This may help funders to test the water using a different approach.

The survey we conducted asked what support the sector could offer and ideas included:

• Just talk about failure more, both formally and informally to normalise it
• Share examples of good practice, perhaps create a guide
• More training, events or seminars on the subject
• Cross-organisational networks or forums for both leaders and non-leaders to share challenges and ideas.

Funders, in the convening role they often play so well, could offer support in these areas.

The first step is for funders to get better about talking openly about our own failures, to make sure our annual reports or website include what we didn’t achieve, what didn’t work, what we need to work harder on and well as celebrate our successes. We can’t expect other charities or even other funders to do this unless we are prepared to do this ourselves. And remember, if it doesn’t pan out well, then we can be open about talking about that failure too!

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