‘Failure’ is often regarded as the third rail of the charity sector – but what do we actually mean by it, why should we embrace it and how can funders help charities learn from it?
Earlier this month I attended the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference in Birmingham. Speaking from the front, Debra Allcock Tyler – chief executive of the Directory for Social Change – made an impassioned plea for charity sector professionals and researchers to celebrate failure.
‘Failure’ is often regarded as the third rail of the charity sector – conventional wisdom is that ‘good’ results attract funds and build momentum, while the opposite risks losing funds, demotivating staff and eroding public trust. But perhaps it’s time to step back and question what we actually mean by failure.
I’ve heard several iterations over the years – failure to achieve targets, demonstrate ‘value for money’ or grow and sustain projects beyond their first grant. However, in a sector that typically tackles complex social problems through innovation, is it really fair to frame these as ‘failures’, or are they not just necessary steps on the road to innovation?
I think that part of the problem lies not with what charities are achieving, but what funders – especially grant-making bodies and the general public – expect to see as results. I’ve seen a lot of funders over the years approach charitable activities with a short-term and transactional mindset – “If I give you this amount of money, how many people can you support with it in the next year?” – at the expense of a longer-term, developmental mindset – “If I give you this amount of money, what can you learn through the people you support now and how can this be used to help others in years to come?”.
Within this environment, no wonder so many charities have come to measure success solely in terms of lives changed rather than lessons learned. And how dangerous for the future given that, to support a culture of innovation, charities need to be able to explore and share where they’ve failed so that others are not doomed to repeat their mistakes.
So, how can funders help charities feel more confident and comfortable in exploring failure? If losing funding is one of the main reasons that charities fear failure, perhaps a good starting place is reshaping the funding landscape so that it better supports risk. This could include:
- Long-term funding models that gives charities the security to invest in robust, test and learn approaches, and removes the pressure to ‘over innovate’ to secure new grants;
- Prioritising and promoting formative evaluation processes (“what’s working well and less well”) alongside summative evaluation (“what was the impact”), which support service user involvement and design, capture emerging lessons around delivery and help organisations to critically reflect on their progress;
- Running share and learn workshops that bring different organisations together to give staff the space to critically reflect on successes, challenges and solutions with others; and
- Fostering a mindset that rewards lessons learned as much as it does immediate ‘success’, both within grant making processes (for example, demonstrating lessons learned to access recurrent funding) or more widely (how about an annual failure awards?!)
Some of these trends have already started to take root and a number of funders are leading the way, so where can charities look to for their own inspiration when it comes to proudly sharing lessons learned? Some of my favourites include: Engineers Without Borders’ ‘Failure Report’; Street League’s impact dashboard that explores disengagement from programmes; and CLIC Sargent’s “Hands up, we’re not perfect” chapter in their annual report.
The message to funders from these charities to funders and other organisations is clear: it’s inevitable that we will sometimes fail, so let’s fail together, and let’s fail usefully to better help the people that we are all trying to support.