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.
We lament the inability of the social sector to scale, but we do not support organizations 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.
This article presents the perspectives of two sector leaders: Rohini Nilekani, philanthropist, social entrepreneur, and writer; and Kyle Zimmer, award-winning social entrepreneur and Schwab Foundation Fellow. We hope it will spark further conversations within the sector.
What is the impact of the lack of recognition of failure for the sector?
Rohini Nilekani: 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, recognizing 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.
Kyle Zimmer: Without innovation, there is no hope that the social sector will design big enough solutions to conquer the problems at hand. Local and regional efforts are noble but, the problems we confront require fully-scaled systemic solutions – and scaling at that level requires innovation.
Innovative organizations, by definition, will experience a higher failure rate – but these are precisely the organizations most likely to deliver significant results. The lack of transparency regarding failure in the sector destroys this critical link between innovation and scaling and undercuts the entire sector.
This often means that flawed strategies are replicated and iterative improvements are delayed. This defeat for the social sector has profound consequences for the resolution of issues around the world.
Why does this lack of recognition of failure exist in the social sector?
Rohini Nilekani: Funding is so closely tied to the vision of success that social organizations are forced to find ways to claim success, not necessarily for societal outcomes but for continuity of funding. There is also competitive pressure between organizations to show the greatest return on philanthropic capital so talking openly about failure isn’t often possible.