A problem shared – an opportunity for foundations



Matthew van Poortvliet

Matthew van Poortvliet

As money becomes squeezed, foundations are increasingly viewing their knowledge as an untapped resource. A real opportunity for impact lies in knowledge of what doesn’t work. Admitting mistakes is difficult, but there is much to gain. NPC’s new report, Foundations for knowledge, commissioned by the City Bridge Trust, highlights what funders can do to learn from their work and share with others.

Think back to a grants programme that you have run. What did you need to know to make it a success? What did you learn from it? Who else benefited from the knowledge you developed?

Charitable funders are uniquely placed to test approaches, build expertise and share their knowledge with others. But a reluctance to damage grantees and a culture of good news stories has historically deterred many from being open about mistakes and challenges. Published programme evaluations remain the exception rather than the norm.

However, there is a mood for change. Increasingly, funders are viewing transparency not as a threat but as an opportunity to create more impact and have more influence through being open about their work. As the head of the Center for Effective Philanthropy in the US has said: ‘There’s an increasing recognition among foundation leaders that not to be public about failures is essentially indefensible … If something didn’t work, it is incumbent upon you to make sure others don’t make the same mistake.’

Several foundations in the US have publicly highlighted failures of major programmes. For example, an external evaluation of the Hewlett Foundation’s $10 million Neighbourhood Improvement Initiative found that the effort lacked focus, moved too slowly and ultimately fell far short of the hoped-for benefits to residents’ lives. Rather than bury this, the foundation took the brave step of publishing the evaluation, with President Paul Brest saying: ‘Foundations are supposed to take risks … Sure, it’s better to tell your success stories, but there’s no harm in sharing our failures, too. The only thing at stake is our egos.’

Last month, the Northwest Area Foundation published an evaluation, which one article dubbed ‘A ten year lesson in how not to spend $200 million’. These foundations acknowledge that the process of sharing mistakes can be painful, but they have helped to ensure that others do not make the same mistakes and to foster a culture in which learning and transparency are more accepted. Rather than damage their reputations, they have actually been praised by other funders for their openness.

In the UK, the debate on philanthropic failure has not gained the same critical mass of attention that it has in the US. But funders are increasingly publishing programme evaluations to share challenges and lessons learned, and there are some initiatives to pilot use of web-based tools to share knowledge. The Nominet Trust is in the process of launching a ‘Knowledge Centre’, a website that will publish online evaluations about its grantees and other charities. Supported by the City Bridge Trust and other funders, the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) and New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) are running a simple pilot website to encourage a freer exchange of expertise between funders. Part of the pilot is to test whether it is possible to make such tools work, and to understand and share why they do not.

Without failure there can be no real knowledge about effectiveness. Being public about mistakes strongly influences (and is influenced by) peer behaviour: if you say what you got wrong and what you would do differently, others will do the same; if you don’t, you’ll discourage others from taking the same risks. In the UK there is an opportunity for foundations that are committed to learning and sharing to take a lead and begin a cultural shift towards a greater emphasis on transparency, learning and effectiveness. If I’m wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it.

Matthew van Poortvliet is an analyst at NPC.

For more information
To download Foundations for knowledge, go to http://www.philanthropycapital.org/publications/improving_the_sector/grantmakin…

If you would like to be involved in ACF and NPC’s pilot website to encourage a freer exchange of expertise between funders, please contact Matthew van Poortvliet on MvanPoortvliet@philanthropycapital.org

Tagged in: Foundations Foundations for knowledge New Philanthropy Capital

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