Mistakes to Success: Learning and Adapting When Things Go Wrong, edited by Robert Giloth and Colin Austin
Best practices are nice, but worst practices might be better. Better, that is, at serving as helpful warnings, memorable examples of ideas that sound great on paper but, for whatever reason, don’t work out in the real world—“philanthropy don’ts,” if you will. The problem is that they are somewhat tricky to identify and very slippery to pin down. This is especially true in the nonprofit world, where all the institutional and professional incentives pull in the opposite direction. But more than money is lost by ignoring the clunkers. According to Giloth and Austin, those misfires are the great “untapped resource” of the nonprofit world.
Giloth, of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Austin, program director at a North Carolina workforce nonprofit, have done a fine job casting a cold eye on community economic development programs and asking not just whether they worked—there are groaning shelves of books on accountability—but how we can identify and, more importantly, learn from our mistakes. The quality of the writing varies; the chapters by the editors are among the best. (Although the editors make a few mistakes of their own: Martin Morse Wooster’s pithily named Great Philanthropic Mistakes is credited to one “Mark” Wooster.) There are some bloodless academic stretches, and the prose occasionally gets gunked up by nonprofit-ese. There’s also a lot more about “how to think about mistakes” rather than the mistakes themselves, a choice which may make analytic sense but from the reader’s perspective feels a bit like being served vegetables when you were expecting steak.
The editors were purposefully narrow and disciplined in scope, and probably wouldn’t deny that there’s still a broader and more accessible book about cataloguing and learning from philanthropic mistakes that hasn’t been written yet. The most memorable essay was contributed by community organizer Bob Brehm, who oversaw an ambitious, can’t-miss project to open a large fresh food and produce market in a Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago. The project flopped in its original format. But lessons from that failure can be incredibly useful to others who are thinking about attempting similar projects. The reader is as grateful for Brehm’s candor as for the clarity that comes from his presentation: Here’s what we were thinking; here’s what we did; here’s what happened; here’s what we can learn from the gap between our expectations and our results.
In the business world, the bottom line is a relentless exposer of truths. There’s an economic reward for the person or firm that discerns what went wrong and figures out how to fix it. That’s not true—yet—in the nonprofit world, and I wouldn’t hold out much hope for “What were we thinking?” sections to start appearing on most foundations’ websites any time soon. But there should be a receptive market for donors who have the commitment and the courage to share their losers along with their winners. We have all learned some very expensive lessons. Wouldn’t it be great if future donors didn’t have to pay for them again and again?
A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England, by David D. Hall
Hall ranks foremost among historians of early American religion, and in A Reforming People, he explores why the 17th-century Puritans of New England influenced civic and community life in their towns and colonies so much more than Puritans in England did there. The Puritan emphasis on “godly rule,” Hall explains, put them in a position to put their biblically inspired vision of community life into practice. Central to Puritan religious life were covenants: God’s covenant with his chosen people foremost, but also the covenants that governed Puritan church life. “Every such covenant bound a congregation to ethical values and practices,” Hall writes. The idea of covenants helps us to understand the Puritans’ charity and philanthropy. They appointed deacons in their congregations to care for those in need, and they gave money and goods for that purpose. Many Puritans willed their estates for charitable purposes. But philanthropy in a covenant has a unique character, because covenants imply “equity”—another central element to Puritan thought. Everyone is to be treated with equity not only because all share equally in the fall of mankind but also because each is freely able to enter the covenant. Thus, charity is not noblesse oblige; it is a loving expression of family ties. Giving is not about “giving back” to society but about serving one’s covenant brothers and sisters. These covenants, Hall points out, shaped the civic life of New England in the 17th century: “Congregations may have been the epicenter of an ethics of mutual care and peace, but aspects of this ethics were also crucial to the workings of civil society.” That they are no longer crucial speaks to the limits of Puritan statecraft in a pluralistic society.