Failures in Philanthropy

SELCO Foundation
Sep 7, 2018 · 5 min read

Pakzan Dastoor of Dasra, is the first to admit our collective ability to talk about the failures of others but not our own. When it comes to philanthropy, the social expectation is high but the definition of success can often be myopic. How do we define failures in philanthropy? Some of the problems might be cultural, sometimes it’s the numbers game that bogs us down, and what of the philosophical dissonance between funders and organisations? Our panel traversed through a rich range of failures that plague us in philanthropy.

Translating Failure & Cultural Differences

Photo from Unplash

“Difference in culture means a difference in viewing what is failure and what is success” notes Prins. He was brought up bi-cultural (Dutch and American) and can therefore adjust metrics of success to cultural temperatures.

“The Prime Minister going to work on a cycle will be celebrated in Netherlands, but not so much in the U.S. There is a lot of praise and acceptance of intellectual success in Netherlands.” “As far as I know, no one comes out and says we failed at this.” This is what Jeffrey Prins (who now works at IKEA Foundation) admits. But he also tells us of a company they invested in when he worked at DOEN Foundation.

“The company we invested in eventually went bankrupt. But it moved the market in the right direction, so we call it a successful failure.”

But what about the relationship between funder, organization and actual impact? Especially in a country as textured and diverse as India?

Veena Joshi is the first to point out that we as a country have never valued decentralisation. “That’s why we have centres of excellence in India but no real impact.”

“We should be able to see the biggest development agency and that is our government- but why should it not be able to talk to us? The question of scale can only be addressed if we have both citizens and government with us. No amount of donor funds can do that, but the culture has to change, it’s a mindset thing. Larger conversations and larger collaborations will change things.”

Pakzan is more reserved about the Government’s role in philanthropy.

“The role of philanthropy is to take risks and very few are doing that — the government has to play it safe they can’t take risks.”

Prins agrees about the principle that transparency and the government can never come together —

“Politicians would lose their jobs if they were transparent about failures.”

Confirmation Bias and Outdated Metrics

Aravind B. from Azim PremJi Foundation admits that in their four years, there have been no spectacular failures, but ’spaces’ where they’ve consistently failed.

He knows that the relationship between users, organisations, and actual impact can be tedious. “Our partners want the process to be simple. So we add a feature to make it simple but it ends up actually adding a bug to the user experience.”

Photo from Unplash

Aravind also talks about confirmation bias. When a partner or a group at the organization have preconceived notions about a plan, the people, or the funding, they will look at every interaction with those glasses on. That can completely colour the impact of any project if people are unwilling to look at things with fresh eyes and process outcomes in real time with context.

Veena Joshi says our metrics of success are outdated — we need new and diverse metrics to truly measure what ‘success’ is. She owes this to our national obsession with template answers or black and white answers. Sometimes a success can be different from the predicted outcome. Sometimes a success can be a new learning or insight that helps a new seed grow into the direction we had envisioned it.

Jeffrey Prins thinks the word ‘success’ must be something we inspect from all points of view. “You have to dig deeper to see what success and failures are. For example something ‘good’ is to be seen from an ethical success.”

The Funder, The Organisation and The Need for Philosophical Alignment

One thing everyone could agree on is the importance of the the funder and organization to be on the same philosophical level.

“Behind every failure there’s a bad decision we made” says Veena Joshi, “We think long and hard before we choose to partner with someone, we need to see if we’re ideologically and philosophically aligned.”

Funders are often socialed to pre-define what success is. And that leads to creating markers of that success only to be disappointed by any it requires to be justified as a good investment. Are organisations only interested in hitting certain funding targets, with big dreams to scale without planning for the inevitable breaks in cultural landscapes that will create challenges?

Funders and organisations need to agree on the vision they have and make room to learn from unexpected outcomes. Once that value is mutually respected, together there can be more learning, productivity and most importantly, innovation.

Photo from Unsplash

All that said, these insights are not a push to render the word ‘failure’ as a breezy, subjective term. In fact, the panel agreed that the heart of every massive failure held, at the very least, one very bad decision. And that’s why there is a need for creation of a stronger ‘institutional memory’ that is documented, and communicated over time so that our decision making reflects these learnings. Bringing perspectives together, pushing towards more local understandings and solutions to a problem and seeking a consensus in desired outcomes were areas where the panelists all seemed to concur on.

For more detailed insights on what ensued in the Failures in Philanthropy panel at the Impact Failure Conclave 2018, watch the video below.

For more details visit our website: or write to us at

Impact Failure

The aim of Impact Failure is to provide an in-depth and open discussion about the role of failure in the development space. The goal is also to celebrate learnings that emerge from failures and the impact that can be created through the learnings.

SELCO Foundation

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SELCO Foundation seeks to inspire and implement solutions that alleviate poverty by improving access to sustainable energy to underserved communities.

Impact Failure

The aim of Impact Failure is to provide an in-depth and open discussion about the role of failure in the development space. The goal is also to celebrate learnings that emerge from failures and the impact that can be created through the learnings.

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