"What can you tell me about your failures?”
This is a topic I commonly bring up with an organization before we consider making an annual gift to them. In asking about failure, I am hoping the organization can share specifically what didn’t go as well as they had hoped and what they are learning from this experience.
Sometimes the answers are predictable – funding fell a bit short of the goal or participation was lower than expected – but sometimes, wonderfully, the answers are substantial. I respect and appreciate organizations that genuinely confront failure and learn from it. And, I hold the highest esteem for those willing to talk about it.
Acknowledging the areas where we can improve and then doing our best to address them should not be something we hide from -- not from ourselves, the clients we serve, or the partners who help make the work happen through their time or money. I recognize the risk some people may feel disclosing failure to people involved in the funding process, and I assure you that most foundation professionals regard favorably those organizations willing to have an open conversation about where they made missteps or errors in judgement and what they will do differently moving forward. When these organizations want to have a conversation about what to do next, I not only make time for them, but I become their biggest cheerleader at the funding review session.
While funders don’t really want to be on the losing team and don’t only want to applaud failures, we do always want to be looking at opportunities for growth. We can’t do that with a blind eye towards what really is working and what isn’t.
It comes down to the right mindset. Those organizations who consistently want to appear that everything is perfect and successful probably aren’t looking for ways to improve. If they truly believe everything is always going well and the things that aren’t going well must be out of their control, then they aren’t being honest with themselves or their stakeholders. The organizations that are always watching for signs of needed improvement are the ones that are most reflective and have the most potential for growth. Ultimately, they make the best partners and give funders confidence in making a solid investment.