As an ‘EVPA-greenhorn’ I arrived in Madrid on the 1 December – ahead of me: the 11th EVPA Annual Conference under the slogan ‘Different voices – a shared future’. 1.5 days, 600 participants, more than 100 speakers, over 25 break-out-sessions and other formats like speed dating, talks and workshops to choose from – challenge accepted!
After my first session, ‘Bigger, better? VP Strategies and successes in scaling and replicating social innovations,’ in one of the conference rooms in Casa de América with its opulent baroque interior, listening to success-stories, I felt ready for my next session, ‘Learning from failures – building on critical learnings,’ which took place in a nearly hidden room in the basement. No gold and baroque spirit but that didn`t really stop people from dropping in. The room was packed with attendees eager to discuss failure and what we can learn about it.
The session was moderated by Caroline Fiennes, Founder of Giving Evidence and started with something, we should definitively do more often: talk with our peers about failure, learnings and expectations. Is failure something we are ashamed of? In what setting are we comfortable reflecting about the failure of organisations, investments and approaches we thought were great? How do we cope with failure within our own organization and even more interestingly, what do we do with our learnings to help other people benefit from it? What do we actually publish and share (maybe ‘honesty report’ would be a good name for it, as Caroline Fiennes suggested?) and where would be the right place for it?
The panellists (Wolfgang Hafenmayer, Co-founder, FutureMakers; Holly Piper, Senior Investment Manager, CAF; Celia Tennant, Chief Executive, Inspiring Scotland) seemed to agree: failures in venture philanthropy are exciting and great learning opportunities for all stakeholders involved in the process of investing and giving. It’s often all about people – and people can fail. And the positive aspect at least of financial failure: it’s easy to measure. Creating a culture of reflecting on failures will prevent people and organisations from making the same mistakes twice – if people share their stories. It gives us maybe even the freedom and mindset to risk more, and ‘be bold’ like Robynn Steffen, Senior Manager at Omidyar Network encouraged the audience in her closing talk of the EVPA.
Failure stories still don`t seem to be the most comfortable and first thing to share, but nevertheless it’s an opportunity to get in contact about the real questions and challenges. Within a few minutes the overcrowded room was filled with many very different voices, talking about experiences with failure. If sharing is one step in failure practice and nurturing a culture around that, that worked already and might also work in ‘real life scenarios’. It could help investors, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs to publish or share what didn’t go well instead of creating ‘only-success-reports’.
So what keeps us from sharing learnings from failures? Often it’s a lack of time, sometimes the fear of losing or harming reputation, or even scare investors, seldom it seemed to be the conviction, that talking about failures is no good at all. Beckett can`t be so wrong: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’.
Julia Röhrich is project manager at Active Philanthropy.