We Fail (Even More) When We Fail To Talk About Failure (VIDEO)


I first heard Grant Oliphant admonish foundations for not being willing to talk openly — and routinely — about failure (and without shame or embarrassment) at a Communications Network conference in Miami in 2007. Back then, he laid out a 10-point prescription for overcoming reluctance, or plain unwillingness, of foundations to admit that not everything works as they planned.

On that list were the following:

  • Make learning your goal: The mission is to help you and others improve.
  • Get the facts.
  • Be clear on your audience(s).
  • Be clear on the message.
  • Take ownership. (“Mistakes were made…”)
  • Understand the risks.
  • Name names with great care.
  • Be respectful.
  • Explain what people should do with the lessons you have learned.
  • Tell a story!

Oliphant, who back then was with the Heinz Endowments, and who now is president of the Pittsburgh Foundation, hasn’t succeeded at winning as many converts to his cause over the years as he’d like. Still, he’s not giving up on trying. Just recently, Oliphant spoke at The Jewish Funders Network International Conference in Tel Aviv. In his talk, he outlines the reasons foundations still fear to talk about failure and updates his list for overcoming that reluctance. You won’t go wrong for watching.

After viewing the video the other day, I had to ask Oliphant what keeps him so committed to what some might consider a sisyphean quest. “The truth is, I’ve tried to leave it behind, because who wants to be known as the failure guy?” he said, laughing. “But people keep asking me about it. I guess failure doesn’t have many spokespeople.”

–Bruce Trachtenberg

1 Comment

  1. David Brooks, in a column in the New York Times, offers some interesting thoughts on how to set up better ways to test potential solutions to problems. Some of his thinking might be relevant to the foundation field, too. He suggests that by following his suggestions people would “fail less badly every day.”

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