Redefining Failure: How Funders Can Support Data-Driven Progress

Posted on 09-26-2019

Failure is feared in the nonprofit sector, and little wonder. Every dollar is precious, and when the bottom line comes down to improving lives and communities, organizations are grappling with a tremendous responsibility. What’s more, nonprofits may face pressure to set lofty goals that will inspire funders to come on board – and fear the loss of funding that may result should they fail to meet those objectives.

Here’s the problem: fear of failure can be stifling. The flexibility to evaluate progress and adjust course is absolutely critical for nonprofits to learn and make progress towards social impact, even when that means not achieving a specific goal or metric.  When this “failure” isn’t valued by funders, the opportunity to learn and improve is lost.

These were a few key takeaways from a recent presentation at the Grantmakers in Health Annual Conference on Health Philanthropy, held this summer in Seattle. Jesse Simmons of St. David’s Foundation and Semonti Basu of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, alongside nonprofit strategist Kate Robinson, shared evaluation lessons learned right here in Central Texas.

At Good Measure, our mission is to make a difference in the lives of more people in Central Texas by bringing together philanthropic organizations and grantees, working together to use data in creative and strategic ways. That “working together” part is important. Too often, data collection and reporting are driven by compliance rather than strategy, and that amounts to a huge missed opportunity.

We believe funders have a role in supporting grantees’ use of data for learning, and it all starts with a spirit of collaboration. Philanthropic organizations and nonprofits can embark together on projects to learn side by side, with flexibility to make changes when needed. That means creating a safe space for partners to share data – including challenges. By being open about what does and doesn’t work, funders and nonprofits alike can align on realistic objectives and truly move the work forward.

Collecting and making sense of data is a resource-heavy and time-intensive endeavor. Identifying the most pertinent data to collect should be a collaborative and judicious effort, bringing together funders and grantees around shared objectives. Funders can also support grantees through sustained investment in organizational learning, building capacity for data to be used effectively. Ultimately, evaluation should be seen first and foremost as a critical tool for a nonprofit’s own learning and program improvement. It’s not just about fulfilling requirements – it’s about finding out what works.

When it comes to advancing social good through data, there’s room to redefine what constitutes a “failure.” Every project that points to a better way of doing things helps bring us closer to making the impact our community deserves, a true success we can all embrace.

To learn more, check out Good Measure’s Guiding Principles for Funders. See these principles in action in the documentary Failing Forward: On the Road to Social Impact – click here to request a free access code.