Fifty philanthropy and nonprofit colleagues joined four panelists in discussing how philanthropic mistakes can be used to advance innovation, learning, transparency, and results. In my role as vice president of the Center for Family Economic Success and Community Change at The Annie E. Casey Foundation, I moderated the panel and gave an overview of my recent book co-edited with Colin Austin, Mistakes to Success, to set the context for an important topic foundations must face.
Kirsten S. Moy of The Aspen Institute discussed a chapter she wrote for the book with Amy Brown of the Ford Foundation on the fallacy of pilot projects leading automatically to scale impacts. Edward W. Pauly of the Wallace Foundation outlined foundation-wide efforts to improve grantmaking practices to include shared understanding of indicators of progress and tools like “after action” reviews. Finally, Brown discussed how she is incorporating thinking about mistakes into the design of her grantmaking in terms of risk, portfolios of grants, and ongoing learning.
President Barack Obama and his administration are making unprecedented investments in identifying, cultivating, and replicating social innovations. This unique federal effort seeks to build on the strengths of the nonprofit sector to improve the lives of children, families, and communities. At the same time, foundations are designing prize strategies to encourage innovation, spurred by the success of the X PRIZE. An overarching consideration in both approaches is that hunting for successful social innovations may not be sufficient: it is only a part of the answer. A treasure trove of innovation mistakes and failures exists, mostly out of sight, that could inform the design and replication of a next generation of social innovations. We need to know more about what hasn’t worked and why. We need to learn from our mistakes.