Reporting hard-won lessons: a case study

Examples of grantmakers sharing lessons learned from misguided approaches are few and far between, despite how helpful those lessons can be for other grantmakers. Not many of us are prepared to eat humble pie. But one US grantmaker did just that, providing others with an example to follow.

The background

The Northwest Area Foundation published a 45-page report titled Gaining Perspective; Lessons Learned from One Foundation's Exploratory Decade. Ten years before, the foundation had decided to "transform the way it did philanthropy." A strategic plan announced a "big, hairy, audacious goal" of reducing poverty with a $200 million spending program. It came with some cutting edge principles:

  • We must take smart risks.
  • We must commit for the long haul to the issues at the core of our missions.
  • We must engage grantees' communities in relationships of mutual respect.
  • We must seek sustainable change for the better, not quick fixes.
  • We must learn as we go, adapt as we learn, and share what we find.

Reasonable as all of that may sound, it did not work in practice. "We failed to implement our ideas consistently and effectively," Gaining Perspective reported. "What seemed excellent in theory became very thorny in practice, and we struggled to adapt successfully in response to the lessons reality taught us."

What was the problem?

The report suggests the core problem was that the foundation took multiple major risks at the same time. It simultaneously:

  • reframed its identity from grantmaker to community partner
  • made multi-million-dollar, multi-year commitments to an untested strategy
  • placed many of its biggest bets on newly formed organisations
  • adopted a go-it-alone approach to most of its work, choosing not to engage with the public sector
  • changed its governance model so that the board of directors had little grasp of how the strategy was playing out on the ground.

What can we learn?

There are plenty of lessons to be taken from the foundation's mistakes, including "take risks but manage them carefully;" "understand the context of the communities in which you work;" and "keep board members in touch with implementation."

But the biggest lesson to be learned is from the decision to publish the report itself: "We need to give ourselves permission to make changes along the way, and to not be afraid to do so. We are going to make mistakes and should be able to recognise this. Ultimately that's how you learn the most".