With pressure to show returns on philanthropic capital, there's little room to discuss failure. In order to mitigate huge organisational and programmatic risk, a culture of admitting failure needs to be built.

A lot of ink is spilled, and awards are bestowed celebrating the success of the social sector–and there is much to celebrate. But the truth is, if innovation is essential to the ultimate achievements of the sector, we should spend less time on success, and more time on failure.

If innovation is essential to the sector, we should spend less time on success, and more time on failure.We lament the inability of the social sector to scale, but we do not support organisations to innovate on a continuous basis. We know that acceptance of failure is an essential part of innovation, which in turn is required for a successful outcome. Yet we do not bridge the gap.

Progress on this issue will require candid communication between social entrepreneurs and the philanthropic community. Unfortunately, such candour is rare.

Related article: Getting the best possible failures in philanthropy

The impact of the lack of recognition of failure for the sector

Societal change is very complex; it requires system change and the distribution of agency. The path to change at scale needs many experiments, much innovation. Naturally, some ideas will not work on the ground.

For the social sector, recognising failure early, acknowledging one’s personal and institutional role in it, and then embarking on course correction is very critical.

Speaking up about failure gives people courage. The fact that you can express it, and then deal with it, allows you to go beyond the fear of the unknown. Going beyond this fear then opens you up to many possibilities.

Mahatma Gandhi set sail for South Africa because he had failed to set up a successful law practice in Mumbai, and had piled up debts to repay. One failure launched an adventure that encompassed all of humanity.

Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The reason we don’t recognise failure in the social sector

Funding is so closely tied to the vision of success that social organisations are forced to find ways to claim success, not necessarily for societal outcomes but for continuity of funding. There is also competitive pressure between organisations to show the greatest return on philanthropic capital so talking openly about failure isn’t often possible.

The stage of failure also matters a lot. In the early start-up phase of an organisation, failure can be a badge of honour, and high risk-taking is considered heroic. So, failure is talked about without shame.

Funding is so closely tied to the vision of success that social organisations are forced to find ways to claim success.When organisations grow, they hesitate to share failures. By then, a culture has often developed where people are supposed to succeed in their tasks. So, when things go wrong, each person or unit keeps it quiet, creating huge organisational risk. Organisations have to learn to build a culture of admitting failure and acting upon it quickly.

It’s also critical to then decide whether to abandon a particular course of action. Otherwise there is a danger of ‘escalation of commitment’. People can double down on some wrong action–hoping to do better next time, or because they are too scared to turn back.

At that point, failure can morph into a moral question. Some failures are a breach of ethics. These should not be absolved or glorified.

Yet, every failure represents a choice made and is an opportunity for everyone in the ecosystem to learn. As philanthropists, we need to create spaces for organisations to share their failures without a negative impact on funding, and on society as a whole.

What philanthropists, funders, and social entrepreneurs can do to help solve this issue

As a philanthropist myself, I can also be bolder in pointing out the failure to understand failure! I would say philanthropists, who are usually successful entrepreneurs in their own right, find it quite easy to take big risks in their business. They do not expect guarantees of success.

But many philanthropists find it very difficult to allow social entrepreneurs the same bandwidth for risk. So, money is spread too thin, or pulled out too soon, or success declared too early.

If we are going to have serious impact, our approach must be seriously different.Many serious givers, including my husband Nandan and I, have realised that if we are going to have serious impact, our approach must be seriously different. We need to collaborate more, pool resources and experience, and take bigger risks while learning to trust social sector leaders more.

Related article: We need to talk about failure

Some hopeful developments in this space

I think Indian philanthropy is at an exciting stage; it is continually evolving, together with the ecosystem of giving. With rapid and concentrated wealth creation, the spotlight is on what that wealth is doing for the country.

Serious philanthropists are investing more capital to tackle bigger, complex problems through mutual trust and collaboration; technology and data platforms; and most importantly–with an approach to distributing the ability to solve across samaaj (civil society), bazaar (markets), and sarkaar (the state).

We call this ‘Societal Platform Thinking‘. For example, some of us, led by the Tata Trusts, have come together to form the India Climate Collaborative. Some of us have pooled resources to set up the IPSMF (Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation). Globally, we have The Audacious Project and also Co-Impact, which is a global philanthropic collaborative, backing a few attempts at population-scale social change.

These are new and welcome developments. Now we must be seriously ready to encounter failure and minimise externalising the cost to society.

This is an excerpt from an article that was originally published by the World Economic Forum. You can view the original here.

Disclaimer: IDR is funded by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies.

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Rohini Nilekani

Rohini Nilekani

Rohini Nilekani is Founder-Chairperson, Arghyam, a foundation for sustainable water and sanitation, which funds initiatives across India. From 2004 to 2014, she was Founder-Chairperson and chief funder of Pratham Books, a nonprofit children’s publisher. A committed philanthropist, she sits on the board of trustees of ATREE, an environmental think tank, and is a director on the board of EkStep, a nonprofit education platform. A former journalist, Rohini has written for leading publications such as India Today, and Times of India. Her novel, ‘Stillborn’, was published by Penguin Books, which also published ‘Uncommon Ground’, based on her TV show. She has written several books for young children, including the popular 'Annual Haircut Day'. She serves on the Eminent Persons Advisory Group of the Competition Commission of India. In 2017, she was inducted as Foreign Honorary Member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


  1. Vaishali Lonkar Reply

    Very well expressed article indeed!!!

    I strongly feel that at any stage of development, failures are to be expressed without having any inhibitions . It would prevent future loss and help in altering our strategies for better results. Philanthropists should also understand this aspect and continue funding the organization without disrupting the process of development.

  2. Very well articulated , hope the target audience reads it and applies … With best

  3. S Sivaraman Reply

    Very interesting. Failure to understand and appreciate and accept failure. We are not p
    perfect. We move from failure to failure to learn more about it. These ideas are useful to regular business, trade and Industries also.

  4. Well said, and thank you for the leadership that Mr Nilekani and you continue to provide to newer ways of approaching philanthropy, often reminding the new ‘givers’ of the rich Indian tradition, and family legacies that have built some of the finest Indian institutions of research and learning. As a decade-long manager of a global multi-donor program called the Think Tank Initiative (TTI), managed by IDRC of Canada, I have seen the crucial role that international funding (they continue to be the largest funder of most think tanks in South Asia), and their impatience plays on strategy and operations of think tanks, fear of failure being a critical one as you recognise. There are other such skewed influence too- desperation to show quick and measurable results being another important factor. Providing research project funding with little flexibility for building indirect cost (read institutional renewing expenses) continues to be the norm, leading to think tanks subsidising the donors who do not often pay (unwittingly perhaps) the full economic cost of their projects. TTI program- a path-breaking public-private partnership at the global level- in the past 10 years has provided core non-tied financial and technical support to 14 think tanks in South Asia (7 in India, and 43 globally). The transformative changes even modest support has accomplished in these think tanks is inspiring, and all captured in a recent publication (https://in.sagepub.com/en-in/sas/strengthening-policy-research/book267603). Important lessons have been the critical importance of the need to invest intensively in selecting the right institutions, providing them complete ownership of the financial support that is core, untied, long-term and predictable, allow them adequate space and insurance to experiment and fail if necessary, strengthen relationships with the leaders based on credibility, mutual trust and respect, and enable a mutual learning-while-walking the path confidence. With appropriate mix of monitoring and concomitant evaluation, success follows. We need more leaders like yourself. (views are personal)

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