“Fail faster, succeed sooner” is a core axiom in the field of innovation design, attributed to David Kelley, founder of IDEO. It’s very popular with engineers, industrial and process designers, and creative folks. Most foundations and nonprofits don’t seem to have this ethic, though.

Before exploring some possible explanations for this, I want to highly recommend the cover story in the current issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Rediscovering Social Innovation” by James Phills Jr., Kriss Deiglmeier, and Dale T. Miller. The authors provide a clear definition of social innovation:

“A novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions, and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.”

Avoiding the cheerleading found in so many articles on the subject, they make some very important distinctions and clarifications, such as: innovation can be both a process and a result; the concepts of “social enterprise” and “social entrepreneurship” are too narrowly focused on organizations and intrepid individuals, respectively; social innovation is fed by transfer and sharing of knowledge across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors;  and a social innovation can be not only a product, process, or technology, but also “a principle, an idea, a piece of legislation, a social movement, an intervention, or some combination of them.” The article is a really, really good read.

Now, back to the risk of failure. I’ve always thought that the reason so many nonprofits and foundations were so risk-averse was that they couldn’t (or didn’t believe they could) absorb and recover from failure. This is kind of like the way very small farmers in developing nations were inherently conservative in trying new seeds and techniques. The gains from innovation may be high, even proven to be high—but if the price of failure for farmers and their families is starvation, the cost/benefit wouldn’t balance.

Why the “fail faster” ethic isn’t stronger at foundations is more of a mystery, however.  For foundations, the failure=extinction calculus doesn’t apply. Let’s hope examples like Jim Canales’ open discussion of some of the Irvine Foundation’s failures (as profiled by Sean Stannard-Stockton here) will encourage others to follow, and eventually lead more funders to try, revise, and adapt approaches more quickly and openly.

Ironically, a focus on innovation seems “oversubscribed” in philanthropy, as Dr. Robert Ross remarked when accepting the Distinguished Grantmaker Award on behalf of The California Endowment, rather than for himself, at last May’s Council on Foundations conference. He observed that in many fields, the question is not what to do, but how to do it to scale, and in his view that’s why it is increasingly important for foundations to engage in and support advocacy. The old notion that government or “society” would expand and support proven innovations doesn’t seem to hold, if it ever did; but too many foundations still seem to think that their role is to develop new solutions, and let others figure out how to get them widely adopted. (That last observation and its faults are mine, not Ross’.)  Ironically, though advocating for taking proven approaches to scale runs a high risk of failure, and while the rewards may be very high, this path still may be difficult for many foundations to choose because it can be hard to say exactly what piece of success the foundation “owns” (the outcomes frame). Plus the work may not seem innovative and thereby lack the “cool” factor that attracts praise from peers.

How could we help see this become the path more traveled by?

imagePeter Manzo is the director of strategic initiatives for the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy organization, and a senior research fellow with the Center for Civil Society in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Previously, he was the executive director and general counsel of the Center for Nonprofit Management.