Phillip Henderson | President | Surdna Foundation


The preparation for any board meeting is considerable, but the payback for all the time and effort is that these meetings help us sharpen our focus on the work, and they provide us a moment in time to reflect on the challenges and questions we wrestle with.  Stepping back from the day-to-day work every few months is healthy, reinvigorating, and essential to maintaining our momentum.  This is particularly true for Surdna’s annual November board meeting, where we take a look back on the previous year’s work and ask ourselves what stood out, what really worked, or failed, and what exciting work is ahead of us.


What animated our discussion at the November meeting were three concepts: risk, failure, and learning.  Their centrality to our grantmaking is made especially apparent during these moments of reflection, as is their interdependence. While risk, failure, and learning show up independently and in a number of different ways in our work, we have seen that their net effect is to get us closer to the right questions. They have emerged as core elements of how we do our work, and have become important touchstones in our board-staff dialogue.



As we adopted our strategic framework several years ago—a document we call our Roadmap—we named learning as a core element of how we wanted to work.  There was some initial internal skepticism about calling ourselves a “learning organization,” but we believed that learning had to be central to the way we did our work. The systems, strategies, and work habits necessary to promote strategic learning and knowledge-sharing, both internally and externally, have become an important focal point for much of our efforts to travel along the Roadmap.  We understand that effective learning is founded to a great degree on strong systems for capturing and generating information, curating and packaging that information, then disseminating it and engaging in the resulting conversation.  While our efforts have begun to bear some fruit, the complex work of figuring out how to build an institution that uses ongoing learning as a tool continues, and is fundamental to making progress toward our mission.  

Our work has evolved, particularly in the past year: our program strategies are reaching maturity; our expanded program teams are working more effectively and with greater innovation; our communications is becoming more adept and effective; and our behind-the-scenes grants management system is being redesigned. I believe we are starting to live up to our ambition to learn as we go.  Doing this well requires us to live by the principle that we can’t know everything at the outset of the work, and that we need to continue to be nimble and flexible so that we can make course corrections that allow us to evolve as we go. It means that we might have to do what does not feel entirely comfortable: invite criticism, own our errors, and contend with truths that we might not like.  It also requires us to be curious, to be creative in our approaches, and to seek partnerships where mutual learning can happen. 



With strong board leadership building on a deep reservoir of trust among the board and staff, it has become increasingly normal at Surdna to talk about failure—what’s not working, not just what is.  These conversations are made easier due in part to our arrival at—or approach toward—a shared understanding of what failure actually is. When people use the word failure, they naturally conjure images of clear and unmitigated disaster.  In many contexts, “failure” suggests winners and losers, and that a definitive end point has somehow been reached.  But failure in philanthropy is rarely black-and-white.  And when it happens, failure usually has many bedfellows and it is more often the starting point for new work, not its conclusion.  Sometimes failure is the result of a changing political or policy environment.  Sometimes it’s due to a change in the leadership or stability of the grantee organization.  And sometimes failure is the result of a strategic miscalculation. But, in philanthropy, failure is really best understood as a learning opportunity, or an opportunity to make adjustments in strategy. Talking candidly about failure though, is not the same as learning from it. To do that we have to demonstrate that we have clearly changed our behavior as a result of incorporating lessons learned.  


Failure is almost never a dead-end. And now that we are more comfortable discussing it, we are determined to link it to learning, and even communicate about it externally.



Philanthropic risk has multiple meanings. Many define it in investment terms—as in the tolerance for losing money. For some, risk means the vulnerabilities—known and unknown—to an institution’s reputation. At a family foundation, some may define risk in terms of how we ensure that new board members embrace the mission and can be counted on to carry it forward.  At Surdna, we approach risk not as something pejorative to be avoided. Instead we characterize it as a series of calculated trade-offs we make in our grantmaking that weigh the probability of success against the potential for impact. 


Various aspects of philanthropic risk are always with us, in our decisions on grants, on the management of our brand and image, in the approach to our financial investments.  As we move through our work, we are becoming more adept at talking about how risk shows up in Surdna’s work, and getting clearer about what our appetite is for risk.  


Decisions about risk are deeply imbedded in the ongoing development and recalibration of strategy.  They are not made in isolation nor are they approached as a yes or no proposition. Like the social change we are seeking, assessing risk is not a linear process.  It’s messy, subjective and by definition inexact.  In this way, our embrace of risk—made in expectation of transformational change—is intertwined with our abiding respect for iteration, learning, and failure.  Our approach to risk is best understood as a system of decisions and choices that are about building momentum in the work, starting with assumptions, testing those assumptions, taking in feedback, and adjusting to move forward.


Risk. Failure. Learning. Each demands commitment to a process that is not exactly tidy or predictable, often contentious and divisive, sometimes inconclusive, but absolutely necessary. In our business of giving away money, there are no shareholders, customers, or bottom lines. So, every day we must fight against the very real and chronic hazard of taking the safe route, feasting on compliments, and believing that we are destined to succeed.


We are well aware that we do not have the answers. But by embracing risk, failure and learning, we hope to get to the right questions.

As always, let me know your thoughts and suggestions as we continue our work of fostering just and sustainable communities.




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