By Greg Schermbeck

EmpowerCon Education Panelists, left to right: Kristi Thomas, Alison Welcher, Ricky Singh, James Ford 

In business, the word “failure” has taken on new meaning.

What once was considered a negative — failure as the opposite of success — has become vital to how businesses innovate and grow. You can’t learn to walk without falling a few times. If you want to run, you’re going to stumble even more. And if you’re looking to win the race, you’ll likely spend as much time crumpled up on the ground as you will on foot.

So companies are encouraging that failure, not just among their leaders but at all levels of the business — the thought being, if you support your employees in failure, you create an environment that breeds success. Now, the phrase “fail fast” is splattered on startup walls as a call to create, build, fail, learn and repeat. 

The question is, why doesn’t that mentality extend to the education, philanthropic or social-impact sectors?

I moderated a panel discussion recently at EmpowerCon, a conference that brought together several thought leaders to discuss the future of education. When the conversation veered toward barriers to innovation, one panelist offered an interesting perspective: “I sit here as a barrier.”

The comment came from Kristi Thomas, a Community Relations Senior Consultant with Wells Fargo Corporate Philanthropy and Community Relations, which invests significant funds in innovative education and nonprofit initiatives across North Carolina. SchermCo has been fortunate to have Kristi and Wells Fargo as partners in this work as they’ve been the lead funder for one of our initiatives focused on family partnerships, in collaboration with a district and charter school. Kristi and philanthropic professionals across the country play a key role in facilitating, funding and pushing innovation forward in this space. And yet she recognizes that large organizations, foundations, and other funders are sometimes part of the problem when it comes to innovation in education.

“We need to step up and take innovation as an opportunity,” she said. “And we need to think about how school districts and teachers and other folks may not believe that they can be innovative because they are held accountable by parents, taxpayers, and funders. That makes it risky to take on innovation.”

Kristi Thomas, Wells Fargo

Kristi provided additional context regarding the idea of “emergent philanthropy”, an approach that many funders are now embracing when it comes to complex programs or social change. It’s a new approach that leverages the idea of flexibility and less rigid measures to determine success for grantees and the communities they serve, and it just might be paramount to unleashing more innovation within the sector. 

One of the main challenges lies in how we better measure success. Foundations and other organizations that fund a lot of innovative work in education like to put metrics around the projects they’re funding. They want to see a return on investment and rightfully so. Although this is common practice, the unintended result is that it sometimes limits the grantee’s ability to pivot midway through the grant and, potentially, to fail. The goals of the grantees may begin to lean toward the original metrics agreed upon with funders, rather than perhaps adjusting course for what’s best for students and families. Yet, embracing the principles of emergent philanthropy will allow grantees to make any necessary pivots and achieve even more impactful results. 

The organizations that finance such innovative work want to know that their money is being well spent, that their dollars are generating impact. The concept of failure is also unsettling when we think about families and kids. How can we afford to fail when the future of the next generation is on the line? 

The irony is, we are in many ways failing those kids right now, as you’re reading this.  

The high school graduation rate in Washington, D.C., for example, stands at just 59 percent. The 2017 National Assessment of Education Progress, better known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” saw zero progress in its 2017 scores, leading one expert to refer to the past 10 years as “a lost decade” for education reform. And a recent paper from the Center for Education Reform found that two-thirds of all students in the U.S. are performing below grade level in reading and math.

Given all that, failure shouldn’t be such a frightening concept. Chances are, even if we try something and fail, we’re going to learn something that will make the next effort far more successful.  

There is no shortage of big ideas in the world of education, philanthropy and social impact. Yet ideas and the ability to implement those ideas require change on both sides of the work. We need the stakeholders leading these efforts to take chances, learn new things and perhaps push for “innovation” phases within each grant to allow for any necessary pivots. On the other end, we need more partners like Kristi to talk about what they’ve learned and encourage more funders to create “R&D departments for education” — places where both failure and success are embraced. 

That doesn’t mean we absolve practitioners of their duty to work hard and ensure the money given to them is well spent. It does mean that we need to redefine success. We all know that test scores and graduation rates don’t tell the whole story. So how do we create process markers and other metrics that track progress, without damning the efforts of those who try and fail?

From my perspective, let’s ensure innovation periods within grants that allow practitioners to adjust course. Relentlessly seek input from the end-user (both students and families) regarding their metrics of success. Provide space and trust for practitioners to operate. We should assume the same level of professionalism with these leaders as many do other startups. As Seth Godin recently said, “requiring the innovators to count paperclips gives them less time to actually innovate.”  

Creating the future of education begins by changing the ways we measure success and the way we define failure. And that starts with all of us.

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