Philanthropy: Benefiting from Constructive Failure

15th October 2014

In our last post, we mentioned failure and how grant makers should not only have a way around measuring success for grants that worked to plan, but also for grants that haven’t. We thought this topic should be explored in a little more detail.

Research by its nature has the ability to fail.  Researchers take what is known and extend it to explore the unknown, learning from the lessons before it.  Medical research is one of the best examples of applied history, where the lessons learnt are more important than names, dates and places.

Exciting and interesting new research findings and discoveries are reported in literature and in some cases the media, but the negative and uninteresting findings of researchers are often not published or accessible to others who may unknowingly follow the same pathway.  Ben Goldacre’s TED talk highlights how most of the time, negative or inconclusive findings go unreported in medical journals and publications. Whilst the knowledge shared by communicating “what works” cannot be denied, there can also be a great opportunity missed by not documenting and reporting key failures. There are great benefits to be had by showing and sharing that something doesn’t work.

Dr Peter Frumkin wrote quite some time ago about how failure in philanthropy was “not a popular subject as it touched both the foundation’s staff, whose decisions were implicated, and nonprofit managers, whose performance was scrutinised”. He went on to explain and demonstrate through notable examples how there were two kinds of failure in philanthropy: one constructive and the other unconstructive. He best described constructive failures as “failed experiments, cases where funds are invested, hypotheses are tested and results obtained”. On the other hand, Dr Frumkin described unconstructive failures in philanthropy as something that “produced no knowledge because the funder either chooses not to communicate openly the results of the evaluation or does not conduct any evaluation at all”.

Dr Frumkin’s article was written approximately 16 years ago, and unfortunately little has changed since then. Both grant makers and grant recipients across most sectors, including medical research, may wish to share their findings and failures, but there aren’t that many avenues for them to do so.

One of the challenges in research is how to create efficiencies and share this information.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recently revised their policy on dissemination of findings, requiring that any publication arising from an NHMRC supported research project be deposited into an open access institutional repository within a twelve month period. It will be interesting to see if this helps once it is established and operational. This is certainly a step in the right direction in providing mechanisms that support research efficiencies.

There is a fascination with success, yet there is also a strong push towards keeping the sector as efficient as possible. These ideologies are contradictory because if we keep on doing what we are doing and avoiding discussions and coverage on what does not work, others around the globe will keep testing and funding those same ideas over and over.

It is important to create value from constructive failure and the philanthropic sector can help do this by clearly articulating in grant agreement its expectations of what should ensue if a grant does not meet its intended objectives. Leaving a ‘failed grant’ as is does little to communicate and educate others more broadly. If anything, these are the types of stories that make for some interesting case studies and are certainly worth sharing.

There is a challenge here that needs to be considered.  It is a matter of balance.  At what point does reporting get in the way of actually doing research?

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