Shouldn't All Grantmakers & NGOs Work Harder to Fail Forward, Hand-in-Hand?

Some themes surfaced again and again this week at the Grantmakers Without Borders 2010 conference. Failures. Structural change. Impact. Learning. And all of them go together.

At the Mesoamerican Grantmakers Group (MAGG), participants kept returning to discussions about how we have to be more comfortable--grantmakers and grant recipients alike--to discuss failure. Not that we have to beat ourselves up, but because work in Mesoamerica is full of juicy failures and the carpet getting pulled out from under people's feet (witness recent challenges from nature and governments in Honduras, Guatemala, and other tough spots).

But we realized that we also have to set up grantmaking systems in a way that incentivizes learning conversations instead of smoke and mirrors, dog and pony shows, and awkward dances (anyone who knows me well knows what awkward dancing looks like!!). Such dances are all too common between funders and grantees.

A simple way to deal with this is by providing multi-year grants or commitments that can soften fears of rejection.

Wouldn't this be a relatively simple way to open up the conversation? We all seek partnership and solidarity, right? Who really enjoys making themselves look good by overstating results? Even if you take 2 steps forward and then fall 3 steps back due to circumstances beyond your control, you've done good work that may pay dividends when you least expect it.

One of my fellow conference participants devised a simple formula: the more failures a person has, the more likely they are to be successful in the end. The key is to bounce back and be resilient. It seems to me that habits of inflating numbers erode trust not only between funders and those they give $$ to but also within grantee groups, and make bouncing back tougher.

If you know you've been inflating the truth all along and can't even explain your original assumptions - like one white lie getting magnified out in ripples that start to create waves sooner or later - then sooner or later disagreements will rise between the people doing work on the ground. But if you're honest and transparent, and you have supporters who listen closely to your needs and give support where you most need it, that's a different story.

And while we're talking about transparency, we should talk about impact and measurement, but that's for another day....

Dave Kramer currently serves as Senior Program Officer for Institutional Development at EcoLogic Development Fund, based in Cambridge, Mass. EcoLogic works with and supports poor, rural communities in Latin America to help them become better environmental stewards in order to save their forests and water in ways that improve their living conditions. Dave works on grant writing, researching, and reporting to foundations, companies, and government funders as well as helping with other strategic initiatives. Dave and  his wife, who hails from Colombia, have a bilingual 5 year-old daughter, and a bilingual Colombian yellow lab named Shenandoah.  Dave. He's most comfortable crossing borders and working at the edges of ecosystems, communities, and mental spaces - i.e. it's "edgework" that makes him tick.