Defining success in grantmaking has been a topic of discussion in nonprofit circles for many years. Recently, it has become the hot topic in philanthropic circles. While most grantmakers can agree that helping grantees achieve success with their projects is a key objective, the biggest obstacle is often open communication about results is often limited.
Learning from both failures and successes is important to improving the whole system of grantmaking. “A system needs to be in place to discuss outcomes openly, and this includes failures,” Lindsay McClung, Director of Community Grantmaking for the Gifford Foundation, said in a 2015 Foundant webinar. Ms. McClung noted that while tracking grant monies is important, there also needs to be a system in place to discuss project outcomes honestly, including project failures. Without the analysis of project failures, organizations cannot learn and make better investments in the future.
In 1953, the US Army began using a simple method to review events or programs. Called the After Action Review, this method asks several simple questions to distill events, examine risks and explore mistakes in a safe, blameless environment. This process is also called a “Hot Wash”. During a staff meeting immediately following any event, staff members are asked several simple questions in an open, free environment.
What did we hope to accomplish during this event?
What really happened? Good or bad.
What did we learn? Or what would we do differently next time? We can always do better so what did we learn that would allow us to operate more efficiently?
What went according to plan, and what did not?
This review is in no way about allocating blame, but rather learning and growing from the shared knowledge of the group. Everyone has a different experience when involved in a project. Differing perspectives allow for a truer view of the whole of the project, its successes or failures, and steps for improvement.
While some organizations focus on mistakes that were made, this has been found to be less efficient than focusing on what can be learned from mistakes that were made. Learning from mistakes creates a better environment and allows staff to be more capable of applying lessons learned to future projects. Open environments allow professionals and companies to grow.
Ms. McClung explained that the Gifford Foundation now uses this model with its grantees: “We had better reports and more honest reports. It uses a simple template and provides a full picture of the completed grant.” This open reporting method allows all organizations to have a greater impact with each project that they undertake.
This process can seem intimidating for some organizations. For some, it seems too simple and involves just a couple of simple questions. However, organizations who have used this simple reporting method have found that they, too, received more realistic, honest reporting. Sometimes, simplicity can provide a clearer vision of the overall impact several projects are having.
Renie Carniol, Director of the Grotta Fund for Senior Care, likened the process to a baseball field. First base would be people who are new to the idea of measuring grant program outcomes. At second base, professionals would be using the outcomes to assess and enhance grantee performance. Third base represents the grantors who are using the data and learning from grantees. The real home run is when grantors are able to use the information that they have gathered, learn from grantees, and improve the quality of the projects that they are supporting.
At Foundant, we wholeheartedly support this new focus on outcomes and measurements. It is, however, important to recognize what you are measuring and why. Are you tracking data for the purpose of telling your story or your impact or, are you learning from your and your grantees’ mistakes to make sure everyone’s future stories turn out better?