“Failing to Win”: Community Foundations as Risk-takers and Change-makers


Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Fall Conference for Community Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by CJ Callen, Program Director at CFLeads.

By:  CJ Callen

Day 2 and I am struck by how much I am surrounded by stories of success. This is great. We all need inspiration and exposure to models of doing business that might strengthen our own. But what about when things go horribly wrong?

When a community foundation takes on the challenge of community leadership — taking on complex roles in complex community change process–all may not go smoothly. Whether or not the bump in the road is just that (a temporary obstacle) or something more has to do with how the foundation processes failure. Does the foundation take time to reflect on the incident, surface the key lessons and uses them to revise strategy and tactics?  We all know that the insights we acquire through our so-called “failures” tend to be the most meaningful and enduring. Why is it so hard for community foundations (and their colleagues throughout the philanthropic sector) to acknowledge failure and use it to strengthen their roles as community change agents?

Rather than focus on the theory behind fear of failure, for instance, that failure is just a product of focusing on short-term time horizon, I want to propose some solutions:

1.       Institute within foundations a culture of learning in which failure is a necessary byproduct of the process of leading, including having a special prize for the team that made the biggest blunder and figured out a way to use it to move forward.

2.       Institute a national day of learning in which foundations share a major mistake they made and how it transformed their practice  of community leadership

Starting with the internal dialogue and then going public in a big way might help us begin to see how downright silly it is to keep our failures in the closet. This is a cliffhanger for me. As community foundations begin to incorporate community leadership into their DNA as THE new business model to ensure ongoing competitiveness and relevance, they are going to engage in high risk ventures. These types of efforts inherently have the ability to generate high yield but also the tendency to fail more often than traditional, “safe” grantmaking.  Given this state of affairs, what will community foundations do? Stay tuned.

For an interesting exploration of the topic of failure in philanthropy,please see the reflections of Jim Canales, CEO of the James Irvine Foundation, a private funder based in California.


Now off to lunch to hear “What would Google do?

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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