Key Points

· Despite a significant influx of charitable dollars over the last 10 to 20 years, solutions to complex social problems remain elusive, while philanthropy has been facing growing pressure to account for its tax-free dollars; to demonstrate, replicate, and scale success; and to be transparent about failed social investments.

· When foundations and their nonprofit partners ignore a failure and move on, whether it is to protect their own reputation or the reputations of valued partners or simply because of the pressure to keep going, it is too easy to toss out the baby with the bathwater – to toss aside a good idea and start over. This is a sign of failing to learn.

· Learning from failure requires the difficult task of changing deeply rooted habits of thinking, decision-making, and interacting. This is especially true in the social sector, where there are many competing and equally important priorities – from providing needed community services and building organizational capacity to achieving systemic change.

· What does it take to actually learn those lessons and improve future performance? Reflecting on failures and publishing “lessons learned” reports are good first steps, but do not guarantee that those lessons will translate into improved results.

· In this article, the authors explore in detail what it looks like for a lesson to be truly learned, and offer concrete recommendations about steps to take to make sure that an important lesson, once identified, actually turns into a lesson learned.

Open Access