Communicating challenges in philanthropy: learn, share, grow

Posted on August 31, 2011 by The Patterson Foundation

By: Melissa Thompson, The Patterson Foundation Strategic Communications Partner

I have a confession…

I make mistakes.

Actually, we all do.

I don’t have to tell you that it’s human nature to do so, nor do you need a reminder that the majority of us have an inherent fear of sharing our mistakes – let alone the lessons we learned from them.

But a big downfall of fearing failure is that it’s counter-intuitive to birthing innovation – especially in the social sector, where innovation can lead to doing more ‘good’ for more people – a win-win for all.

The Patterson Foundation has been given the flexibility to do work others can’t, won’t or aren’t. It is accepted that there is some risk involved in taking this approach.

Challenges are expected.

Sharing those challenges?

It’s pretty much mandatory.

While many foundations, nonprofits and social sector organizations may not have the flexibility to use resources as risk capital, there is something everyone can do: invest in these challenges by learning, sharing and growing.

Even if you’re most comfortable sharing what you learn internally, at first, with your board, executive leadership and staff – that’s OK.

The Patterson Foundation’s culture promotes transparency of the challenges and difficulties it faces while carrying out work through an innovation life cycle.

Here are some ways The Patterson Foundation uses a "share, learn and grow" philosophy that you might be able to adapt for your philanthropic or social sector organization.

  • Learn – When was the last time you had a meeting or informal gathering to discuss why something didn’t work, what you learned and what you will do about it? Try it. You’ll be surprised where it leads. The Patterson Foundation recently hosted an internal ‘immersion’ where leadership, staff and consultants had open and honest discussions about what works, what doesn't work and how to overcome certain challenges.
  • Share – The Patterson Foundation’s initiative managers (independent contractors who carry out TPF’s work) share successes and challenges through blogs and other social media channels. (Check out this blog post from New Media Journalism Initiative Manager Janet Coats about failing forward.)
  • Grow – Organizational maturity and growth happens when you’re open and honest about challenges you’ve faced and what you will do differently as an organization because of it. Launched nearly two years ago, The Patterson Foundation has experienced immense growth and evolution in that short period of time.

Being honest – even with other peer organizations – can lead to creating Connective Tissue and building your network. The Patterson Foundation’s strategic finance partner, for example, reached out to a peer consulting firm to learn best practices in simplifying the 990-PF reporting form. Because they were faced with that challenge and reached out for guidance,  TPF’s 990-PF "reader’s guide" was born.

About The Patterson Foundation Communications Lens

As The Patterson Foundation’s strategic communications partner, the communications lens provides strategic consultation and ensures all communications are consistent with TPF’s mission and values. The strategic communications partner also works with TPF, its initiatives and lenses to leverage and build relationships for the greatest impact.


  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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