Insights in How German Foundations Manage Mistakes to Create Opportunities

The Association of German Foundations (Bundesverband Deutscher Stiftungen) has published a study exploring how German foundations deal with mistakes and failure in practical terms, about the culture among German foundations for addressing faults and errors and the particular challenges foundations face in this area.  Entitled “Learning from mistakes – opportunities for foundations” ( Aus Fehlern lernen – Potenziale für die Stiftungsarbeit), the study is the first output of the Association’s “Foundation Panel” (StiftungsPanel) an initiative through which member organisations sign-up and commit to provide on a regular basis data in support of support research into the foundation sector. This particular study is based on 273 responses and 19 interviews with experts including board members, general managers, area managers and project team members.

Because the sample is based on self-selection it may be biased. Yet the findings are interesting.

For example the study reveals that:

  • 95% of contributors felt that they learn from mistakes – both mistakes that actually occurred and those that were averted were seen as learning opportunities;
  • larger foundations do more training, evaluation, documenting, and checking than smaller foundations  - more than half of larger foundations (54.5 %) established an evaluation mechanism, compared to 35.3 % of smaller foundations;
  • operating foundations appear to be more self-critical than grant-making foundations  - 49% of operating foundations compared to 73% of grant making foundations indicated that they rarely make mistakes.

The most widely used approaches to dealing with mistakes included: regular meetings; evaluation; feedback on performance; and regular training/professional development. In interviews practitioners indicate that it may not always be easy to talk about mistakes and failure and that having an open organisational culture and climate regarding learning is very important. GrantCraft published in 2011 some findings on learning practices in foundations and we blogged about funders and failure in the past asking whether it is safe to fail?

Back to Germany. Building on the findings of their study, the German Association of Foundations has developed recommendations for foundations for dealing with mistakes. Recommendations include:

  • Understanding the management of mistakes as a duty for foundation leaders/managers;
  • Enabling staff to talk about mistakes;
  • Reflecting collectively on strategies for dealing with mistakes;
  • Expanding the repertoire of measures for dealing with mistakes, including seeking independent know how;
  • Applying the Association’s principles of good foundation practice (in German only Grundsätze Guter Stiftungspraxis); and
  • Using platforms to facilitate open exchange with others. Further information about the study can be found here (in German).

In Germany approximately 19,000 foundations operate. The Bundesverband Deutcher Stiftungen has 3800 members. If you manage a bit of German and are interested in the German foundation landscape: on the website of the German Association of Foundations you can search their database of foundations to find links to websites of foundations that are active in specific fields.