A version of this post appeared earlier this summer at GMNsight, the professional journal of the Grants Managers Network -Ed.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Or so our neighbors on Sand Hill Road here in the heart of Silicon Valley will tell you. They wear failure like a badge of honor, because it shows they were brave enough to take real risks. True to our roots, The Hewlett Foundation has long embraced failure, too. A perfect grantmaking record would be a sign that we’re not taking the risks that are necessary to accomplish our goals. So, we welcome failure. Not for itself, but for what it can teach us about our work, and how we can do it better.
That kind of growth requires real candor, introspection, and honesty. And there’s risk in that, too—exposing ourselves to criticism, pointing out our own errors in judgment, taking the chance that we might not like what we find. We don’t often think of it this way, but honesty is a risky virtue, maybe the riskiest. It’s one that can push us out to the fringe—of what’s comfortable for us and acceptable for our organizations. Real honesty about our failures takes real bravery. But it’s worth the risk.
In 2012 our Grants Management department was a brand new team—completely reorganized with me as the leader of a new staff working in newly defined roles within the Foundation. Our first priority was to develop trust and cooperation with the Foundation’s program staff. We were an unknown quantity, so it was important to build credibility. We had to prove ourselves as valuable assets to help the Foundation accomplish its goals.
We were inspired to demonstrate to our colleagues how helpful we could be by solving a nagging problem—longstanding confusion over the precise due date for the Foundation’s grantee reporting. The Foundation has two due dates for these reports: a defined due date and a grace period after that date (an additional 30 or 60 days). This grace period creates consistent confusion about the real due date, and when a report is truly late. Staff and grantees can (and do) point to either date as the “correct” one. Our team identified fixing this as a worthwhile and low-risk challenge, a relatively simple way we could bring more clarity and efficiency to the reporting process. Low hanging fruit, so to speak. We thought clarifying the reporting date question would be an easy project to lead and implement. We were wrong.
Our initial conversations with program staff quickly showed that there were strong opinions about what to do. Staff differed widely in their opinions on how to improve the process—including a sizable contingent who felt the process was fine just the way it was. We learned from staff with international portfolios that the grace period was important for foreign organizations to manage document translations, exchange rate accounting, and the timing required for expenditure responsibility reporting. We learned from program staff how the grace period had been used to maintain goodwill and collaboration in their relationships. Other staff were frustrated with the convoluted dichotomy of a “real” due date and a “sort of” due date. They had a hard time explaining it to their grantees and didn’t fully understand it themselves. They wanted to eliminate the grace period and have just one clear and final due date.
Taken off guard by these unexpectedly strong opinions, my team had a hard decision to make. A project we thought would win us support turned out to put us right in the center of controversy and differing opinions. Ultimately, we left the reporting dates the way they were, because we decided the risk of confronting strong opinions wasn’t worth the potential damage to the relationships we were just starting to form.