Letter from Steve McCormick
Progress through failure
June 27, 2011
In the for-profit world it’s often said that some of the greatest advances come from “failures” – undertakings that didn’t produce the intended results, but yielded insights that nonetheless enabled progress, and even led to breakthrough innovation. As our founder, Gordon Moore, has said:
"With engineering, I view this year's failure as next year's opportunity to try it again. Failures are not something to be avoided. You want to have them happen as quickly as you can so you can make progress rapidly."
Failure in the not-for-profit world is rarely acknowledged. Understandably, organizations extol their work in terms like “bold,” “innovative,” and “cutting edge.” After all, they want to entice donors with the assurance that contributions will produce positive results. These terms suggest comfort with risk-taking -- and, therefore, with the real possibility of failure –and yet few non-profits freely and openly share stories about things that didn’t go as intended.
Donors can exacerbate this aversion to failure, or at least to admitting it, by tying grants to tightly defined outcomes and creating a sense of a contractual relationship: we give you the money, you produce the results. And yet foundations also often assert their own commitment to the lofty ideals of “breakthrough” and “transformational” change. That change certainly won’t be attained without experimentation, well-conceived but unsuccessful tries, and even the risk of complete failure.
Bringing about meaningful change on significant problems will require NGOs and donors making judgments based on the best – but less than perfect -- evidence available, then learning and adapting rapidly and openly. What doesn’t work isn’t necessarily an outright and unacceptable “failure,” but instead an opportunity to learn and adjust.
Such a mindset doesn’t mean forgoing rigorous planning and performance assessment. In fact, it requires a more nuanced and sophisticated approach to planning, monitoring, learning, and adapting. As Fulton, Kasper, and Kibbe observe in their thought-provoking paper What’s Next for Philanthropy: “the wisest leaders have to learn to reckon with ‘creative tensions’ which in philanthropy means, among other things:
- Insisting on rigor and evidence and taking risks despite uncertainty
- Adopting strategies that maintain some top-down direction and letting go enough to unleash bottom-up energy
- Looking for solutions that combine great analysis and unbridled creativity”
With governments and public institutions around the world struggling with severe funding constraints, the not-for-profit sector is in a position to have unprecedented influence in tackling complex and inordinately challenging, but tractable, social problems. To effect major change will require a combination of unbridled aspiration and creativity, a relentless commitment to execution and a disciplined will to monitor, learn, and improve. That’s what we hope to support among our grantees, and to strive to do ourselves.
Steven J. McCormick
President, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation