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(Image of Yoda meme captioned “The Greatest Teacher, Failure is! - Yoda”)

How to have honest conversations about grantmaking failure - by Modern Grantmaking's Gemma Bull

Why on earth is this newsletter opening with a meme of Yoda? Well, one answer is that we're both sci-fi nerds (so any excuse) but the real reason is because I want to talk about failure in grantmaking. 

Failure is something that happens all the time in grantmaking because it happens all the time in life. The fact that so few funders talk openly about the mistakes they’ve made is a widespread, even classic, sin of omission in traditional grantmaking.

When interviewing grantmakers for our book on Modern Grantmaking, people told us about plenty of errors they felt they’d made personally as well as failures that they wished to see acknowledged and tackled across the profession at large. But I'm sure that most readers of this email will understand the pressures not to talk clearly about grantmaking failures - there’s just so many people who might be upset or offended. Grantees, funding staff, board members, philanthropists, nearly anyone could be slighted by an honest accounting of a grant gone wrong, or a whole programme misconceived. This pushes most funders towards a default cone of silence when things don’t go well.

There's always exceptions to any rule though. For example, the Hewlett Foundation has long talked about its own failures, from giving out the Worst Grant awards to publicly sharing articles on how mistakes have led to operational changes

I'm also excited about The Kataly Foundation’s decision to start posting a learning from failure series. In the first article, Zaineb Mohammed, Director of Communications, discusses that when foundations hide failures this can erode trust with grantees but how being more open could help to set a new accountability standard in future. 

Of course the point of talking about failure is not just to talk about it while collecting praise for being transparent. Performing failure is no substitute for actually wanting to learn and improve. Isn’t the real point of figuring out you’ve made a mistake to learn from it? 

If you want to start talking about failure and how to learn from it, here's a few questions you could discuss with your colleagues or board members:

  • Who decides what failure even is? The board, the senior management team, individual grantmakers? 
  • Is our understanding of stuff going wrong mostly confined to individual grants rather than our own strategies, operations and culture?
  • Is the general lack of talk about failure part of a wider transparency issue or is it down to something different?
Finally, for any subscribers based in or near Calgary, you may want to check out a new 
Museum of Failure opening 1st July. Its website suggests a strong ‘products gone wrong’ vibe although this appears less Skynet and more dodgy shoes.


What’s next for Modern Grantmaking training?

We're really looking forward to our first Modern Grantmaking training now taking place on 5th July. This training ‘Improving Grantseeker Experiences: a One Day Training Workshop for Small-to-Medium Funders’ is about how to create a better experience for all grantseekers and grantees. We're nearly sold out but one last place has come up if anyone is eager!

Due to interest, we're planning to run a second workshop on the same theme in the autumn. Just hit reply to this newsletter if you'd potentially like to attend and we'll answer any questions you may have, and add you to the wait list.

We're also now offering bespoke training opportunities in relation to other key themes we discuss in our book. Drop us a line at if you'd like to learn more.


What’s been happening in Planet Grantmaking?

Put simply, A LOT. Here's just some of what we've been reading and talking about:

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