07/30/2015 02:37 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2016

Glorious Failures

At GEO's The Learning Conference 2015 in Boston last month, attendees heard from five of their peers who shared lessons they learned in their careers. If that doesn't sound special, I'm not surprised. As a field (and as a country), we talk a lot about "lessons learned" and other euphemisms that shift blame and obscure our role in failures and missteps. That's exactly what we wanted to avoid at our Fail Fest this year.

So let me rephrase: At GEO's The Learning Conference 2015 last month, attendees heard from five of their peers who shared publicly some of the biggest mistakes they've made. Our five speakers told embarrassing stories frankly and forthrightly, and with no shame. In front of 300 others who work in philanthropy, these five people stood up and went into the specifics of how they failed -- and how they will avoid doing it again.

I wanted to share some of the key lessons we heard:

1. Don't ignore in yourself the same failings you try to fix in others.
One Fail Fest speaker shared a story of how after spending a career working in philanthropy -- seeing what works and what doesn't -- she still fell into the same traps she had seen others fall into before. As she put it, "The failure in my story is not that I should have known better. The failure is that I DID know better, but I STILL thought I was the exception." The speaker reminded us that we need to avoid succumbing to "precious snowflake syndrome" -- the belief that because we know where others went wrong, we'll be smart enough to avoid the same pitfalls.

2. We're not smarter than our grantees.
Another speaker told a story that reinforced how much process matters, especially when you're excited and have the momentum for change. After reaching important milestones, this grantmaker was ready to double-down -- their national social justice campaign had more or less achieved its goals, and they felt a desire to put the lessons they had learned into effect on a new effort. They ran into trouble when they forgot to ensure that the grantees on the ground had the capacity and preparation to undertake the new work. Not only did the grantmaker not see the progress it was hoping to accomplish, the foundation lost credibility with its grantees.

3. Make sure you bring everyone along as you pursue change.
We've all been in those meetings -- you're presenting something new that you are really invested in, and everyone else is just tearing it to shreds. That's what made the story a Fail Fest speaker shared so relatable. She shared a great example of how walking into a room and presuming she knew the right approach, the right timing and the right goals to achieve internal change did not lead to success. When did she find success? Years later when her organization had the capacity for change, people were ready and when those affected were involved from the get-go.

Why was it so powerful to hear funders share these lessons so frankly? We talk a big game in philanthropy about how important learning is. We talk about learning for improvement and not accountability, about embracing failure, and about sharing what we're learning. But we still have a long way to go before we're all truly using what we've learned to grow and get better at what we do. Being able to own up to our own failures -- to communicate honestly about what went wrong, what we did wrong, and what will be better next time -- is a strong signal that indicates a person and an organization that is really ready to learn.

We were lucky to find five souls who were willing to share real challenges -- stories about how they let their own ego get in the way, about thinking they could avoid the traps of their colleagues, even about dealing with fraud. While I was encouraged by courage of these people to share their failure so publicly, the real lesson our field should learn is that this shouldn't be considered an act of bravery. Sharing where you've messed up so that others can avoid your mistakes should be commonplace.

I know that my admiration and respect for these colleagues increased significantly because of their willingness to be vulnerable with the GEO community in service of learning. So maybe it's not our successes, but the way we handle our failures that sets apart the greats among us.