The Mistakes We Make

A couple of the case studies we’ve read for my philanthropy class come from the book Great Philanthropic Mistakes by Martin Morse Wooster. So far I’ve read chapters discussing the Carnegie Corporation’s involvement in creating public television and the massive blind investment the Rockefeller Foundation made in standardizing medical education. Wooster also tackles the Annenberg Foundation’s role in school reform (we’re reading that chapter next week) and the MacArthur Foundation's Fellows Program. I’m intrigued enough that I may have to go ahead and buy the book for my own collection!

These readings got me to thinking about foundation mistakes--failed programs that sounded fantastic at the start but, through either environmental circumstance (such as PBS’s competition with the new cable channels) or non-acceptance from the target community (like prominent medical schools dismissing the proposed standardization). Only recently in my 6 years of foundation work have I seen public acknowledgement of foundation mistakes. The first was a Grantcraft publication called When Projects Flounder. The second was a discussion this year at my foundation about learning from failed programs. There have been others here and there, but they seem few and far between.

Why have foundations been so hush-hush about failed programs? With all the emphasis foundations put on grantees talking to each other at our annual convenings about lessons learned, you’d think those of us who work in foundations would be more willing to also trade stories of the grantees that didn’t quite meet our expectations. When I work on developing new funding programs, I would love to not only talk to the foundations who succeeded in a similar initiative but also those who failed miserably. Then, just like my grantees who exchange such stories with each other, I can learn from the mistakes that were made.