When failure is an option

Lyndsay Stecher Innovation, Private sector, Research, Water

Innovative, unfiltered, and impact-driven. Lyndsay Stecher describes what it means for Oxfam to work in partnership with trusts and foundations.

Everything we do at Oxfam is possible because of funding. We are not naïve to the fact that this has an impact on programme decisions. Funding provides great opportunities, but when misapplied, it can also drive the wrong priorities.

These privately-funded bodies told us that they want genuine and challenging partnerships with NGOs.
Last year, we undertook a research project to better understand the trusts and foundations funding sector, conducting 25 in-depth interviews with Chief Executives, Trustees, and Grant Managers from across the UK and Europe. These privately-funded bodies told us that they want genuine and challenging partnerships with NGOs.

They know that endless grant financing is not a sustainable solution, and they understand their power to catalyse change in the right direction. Trusts and foundations have the freedom and purpose to implement innovative programmes and ask difficult questions. They employ technical experts with field experience, and are serious about learning, sharing failure and success, and measuring what works. As one interviewee said, the most important takeaway is often ‘why a project didn’t work out’.

These findings align with those of trusted bodies like the Association of Charitable Foundations in the UK, Grant Craft and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Hauser Institute for Civil Society in the US.  The sector wants transparency, effectiveness, and innovative partnerships that drive real social change.

So, what’s standing in their way? Often it’s us.
So, what’s standing in their way? Often it’s us. We heard repeatedly how trusts and foundations are frustrated with NGOs presenting a rose-tinted view of the projects they fund. In the words of one partner, “That just cannot be the reality. Nothing runs perfectly.”

This touches on much deeper challenges in the aid sector

Successful delivery of pre-agreed, time-bound project goals has been the bread and butter of the traditional NGO-funder relationship. Whether instances of ‘failure’ result from our own missteps or just an understandably complex environment, unfiltered honesty has not always been the most natural response.

The pressure to perform is felt by technical teams as well. A recent ODI research report  found that in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, some field staff decisions were influenced by competitive pressures to provide a stronger account of their work compared to other organisations.

Clearly this is painfully counter-productive and most importantly can be damaging for the communities we work alongside. Cecilie Hestbæk of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund encourages us totalk more about failure in humanitarian innovation. She notes that when we fail “properly”—because of reasonable risk, pilot projects, or exploratory grants—we can test and refine intelligently and create a better learning culture.  

Tick-box delivery or real, sustainable change?

We know there is appetite for evidence-driven philanthropy that produces results in a limited timeframe. The Effective Altruism community and associated Give Well charity vetter demonstrate a clear desire for measurable success.  DFID’s Payment by Results (PbR) financing operates in a similar vein, making grants contingent on independent verification of results.

These are understandable responses to the lack of transparency and accountability of the past, but are also oft-debated forms of giving. Fifteen leading economists recently criticised this ‘aid effectiveness craze’ for narrowing focus onto small-scale projects that satisfy short-term targets—ignoring structural economic and political drivers of poverty. This approach often also fails to empower local people to be the real force of sustainable change in their communities. Denying such complexity in favour of tick-box delivery begs the question, whose needs have we actually met?

Change starts from within

So what of trusts and foundations? They can see the big picture. They control their timelines and their goals. They face minimal public pressure to ‘deliver’ and have the capacity to be agile; responding swiftly to evaluation results. This sector is uniquely positioned to model alternatives to traditional output-driven, short-term project thinking. They want to engage on even seemingly intractable issues with transparency around successes and failures.

NGOs now have a timely opportunity to work differently and do better.
NGOs now have a timely opportunity to work differently and do better.

I manage a partnership in Nepal with the Poul Due Jensen Foundation focused on providing sustainable safe water to communities in the Terai lowlands. Instead of formal written reports, we speak monthly with an Oxfam technical advisor and our Nepalese colleagues to discuss challenges, achievements, delays, and unknowns. It has been a space to honestly share missteps, correct course, and learn together.  Community concerns are at the centre of our discussions.

We recently delayed the construction of two new water systems by over six months—to ensure local ownership by government and community and create the right financial structures for viability and sustainability. In the past, this delay would have felt like a stressful administrative adjustment. Today it feels like a small triumph.

The project is evolving according to communities’ real and complex needs, which are shared openly with the funder. They welcome the opportunity to engage with issues that affect all organisations working to supply water in rural areas. While the project will take longer than planned, we are more interested in providing a sustainable source of water than confirming the number of boreholes dug by April. We can adjust the indicators as we go.

And so we deal with the tricky stuff, the important stuff. Admitting failure, being honest about risks and practical setbacks, and trying again doesn’t seem so scary anymore. It gives us the space to truly solve problems, in partnership.


Lyndsay Stecher