Maria DiMento, in the Chronicle of Philanthrophy, reports on the trend of foundations to open up about their failed projects in the hopes others can learn from the experience.
"In a study released last month, 88 percent of nonprofit leaders polled by the Center for Effective Philanthropy said they want foundations to speak more openly about what doesn’t work.
A growing number of grant makers agree and are seeking new ways to share such experiences openly to help donors avoid making similar mistakes or wasting money on ineffective solutions to social problems.
While foundations have made such pushes before, they have rarely done much to transform philanthropy’s unwillingness to talk openly about failed grants. But it’s possible that the growing popularity of evaluation will lead more grant makers to talk about projects that didn’t succeed."There are myriad examples of foundations pursuing ways to address major challenges, motivated by the best of intentions, that - at best - have come up short, and at worst have been abject failures. Not surprisingly, foundations have, in the past, resisted promoting public analysis of these unsuccessful attempts. In part that is because foundation Boards of Trustees are hesitant to acknowledge money spent that failed to achieve stated goals, least people think the money is being mismanaged in some way. Consider this (as reported by Ms. DeMento):
There is momentum to acknowledge failure as part of the risk taking process, as exemplified by the Duke Foundation's arts funding:"James Canales, president of the James Irvine Foundation, in 2007 posted online a report detailing a $60-million failed effort his fund supported to improve after-school programs in California. He and Paul Brest, then president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, pleaded with other foundations to be more candid about failure.But Mr. Canales says he hasn’t seen much change since then. One reason, he says, is that trustees are especially worried that if they declare failure, outsiders will think grant makers are wasting money.“One of the impediments to our progress as a field is that we’re still not where we need to be in terms of our relationships with our boards and the ways in which we engage our board in the substantive work of our organizations,” says Mr. Canales. “If more progress on that score were made, then perhaps we would have a culture that would embrace and permit us to talk openly about these issues without fearing that the board would be troubled or worry we’re not doing the right thing.”Foundation presidents and program officers are also part of the problem, because they often don’t tell their trustees about failure, says Joel Fleishman, a professor at Duke University and author of The Foundation: a Great American Secret—How Private Wealth Is Changing the World.Instead, he says, they gloss over things that aren’t working, because they know many trustees don’t want hear about it and fear of the effects of the public’s learning about failed efforts.Foundation leaders, Mr. Fleishman says, need the support of trustees willing to “ferret out the truth about the results of grants.”
"Another prominent effort to tackle the issue of failure more directly comes from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which wanted to help arts groups experiment with ways to reach more people.
To do that, it awarded $3.2-million to groups for new projects and promised that it would not pull the grants or otherwise penalize groups if their efforts failed.
If a new project didn’t succeed as well as planned, that nonetheless could provide them with a breakthrough insight, a new strategy, a new set of relationships that are going to pay off in the next step,” says Ben Cameron, Duke’s program director for the arts. 'We shouldn’t abandon them just because they didn’t do what we thought they would do.'"What would be really valuable is more information on why some well intended approach did not work. In one major program - a $1 billion + effort by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to improve the care of people with chronic illnesses, David Colby, the foundation’s vice president for research and evaluation, said: “The overall effort did not make a dent." Foundation officials hired an outside evaluator to identify the reasons the effort didn’t work and last year published a 78-page report on its Web site that lays out the findings in detail.
"It concludes that the foundation’s grant making was not as well coordinated as it should have been, that grant-making priorities were unclear, and that the scattershot approach undercut the potential of the overall effort."While I applaud their forthrightness, more specificity in why the project failed would be useful. Foundations and funders need to come to conclusions about the nuts and bolts of the "why" of failures. Was the project too ambitious; too large to address in the whole? Was the approach ill conceived? Was there too little demand on the grantees? Some challenges are so large in the abstract, that even a billion dollars is likely not nearly enough to do much good. How then ought funders to proceed?
One thing that seems clear to me is that - at least in the arts field - there may be a tendency to seek a solution to a given problem or set of problems, without fully trying to understand the root causes of the problem. We identify a problem (e.g., declining audiences) and we develop seemingly rational theories about how to address the problem (content with more transformational potential, more engaging efforts et. al.), but often without spending enough time or pouring adequate resources in the harder part of identifying the cause of the problem (i.e., why are the audiences declining).
I have no idea how much money we have invested in the last 20 years to support audience development efforts, but unless you believe those efforts have helped slow down the rate of audience decline (and that can be defined as "success"), then, in the main, those efforts have failed. The audiences continue to decline. Why is the question. We need to know the answer, and to the extent foundations that fund the arts are more willing to ask that question and attempt to answer it, the better off we will all be.
And, before we settle on what the causes of the phenomenon on the declining audience are - arrived at by research and study - we need to make sure that research and those studies are credible and reliable and not just attempts to skew evidence to support a pre-determined theory of how to address the challenge. I know we have spent energy in surveying our audiences, but there is credible evidence that people do not always respond forthrightly to surveying. We have to dig deeper.
We want foundations to take on systemic change challenges. But we also want foundations to fund approaches that succeed. And I have no doubt whatsoever that that is exactly what foundations want too. I think foundations need to more fully understand the root causes of any given challenge they wish to tackle, before adopting whatever approach they want to embrace. And I don't think we are spending enough time and resources of identifying the actual causes of the problems we face.
So, for example, if the challenge is to address the declining audiences for performing arts programs, then whatever the response is, first we need more thinking to go into why the audiences are declining. If there are internal studies that answer, even in part, that question - they ought to be made public. Usually, if they exist, they aren't public. And it simply isn't enough to focus on one of the root causes of the problem - we really have to understand all the causes and how they interact - even if we are to limit our responses to addressing but a single one of those causes. And my guess is that in attempting to affect systemic change, we must bear in mind that the core of the challenge may be in that the situation for each organization is unique, and that there isn't one cause, but multiple causes.
Thus in the declining audiences example, for some organizations the real reason their audience is declining is a combination of factors - some are mundane: too high a ticket price, inconvenient schedule times, difficulty in parking; some have to do with content that doesn't appeal or excite; some have to do with a failure to successfully compete with other forms of leisure activity vying for people's precious time resource; and some may have nothing at all to do what the arts organization is or is not doing. If people aren't coming because the ticket prices are too high, or the venue is too far away, or the performance start time is inconvenient, then making content more relevant, trying harder to engage people in the process of creativity or any other approach may simply be a waste of time. Conversely, if people don't believe the content of the performance measures up against the other alternatives available to them, then lower ticket prices, bringing the performance to the audience and making it easier to attend may be irrelevant. If we wish to fund efforts to stem the tide of declining audiences, then that funding should support a specific plan to address as many of the identified root causes as is possible. And, unfortunately, that may be a different process for each grantee. Oh my.
The more we know about what doesn't work and what hasn't worked - the better we can get closer to something that might work. Kudos to those foundations that are now willing to not only admit where programs and strategies have failed, but to seriously analyze those failures to learn 'why' they failed. A good place to start such an analysis in the audience development arena would be to delve into why those audiences are declining in the first place.
Have a great week.