Face Plants: Our Beautiful Messes

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By Lisa Pilar Cowan

Vice President

Editor’s Note: Today we are kicking off an occasional series exploring funder failures and mistakes. We’re calling it ‘Face Plants.’ Here’s the first post:

In my almost-30 years as a youth worker, program director, consultant, board member, executive director, and now as a funder, I have always had a special interest in ‘worst practices.’ In professional settings, I have long been willing to share my successes – or ‘best practices’ – with colleagues. We conference and white paper and talk over cups of coffee about what we are doing right, and how we can build on each other’s success. 

We learn to write grant proposals, host site visits and give conference presentations showing off our programs, staff, and results. And who can talk about what works better than us? We are much more hesitant to talk about what we are doing wrong – and from there, to figure out how to avoid each other’s failures. For who knows better than us what does not work? And importantly, who can we trust to share that with?

When I was a family planning counselor and sex education teacher, who knew better than I did how little impact the classes I was teaching had on the teenagers of Somerville, MA? If I had talked honestly about what I was doing wrong, could I have changed my approach and done something more useful for those kids? I’ll never know because I was too scared of looking dumb in front of my colleagues and supervisors to talk about it.

According to an article I recently read in The Atlantic: psychological research suggests that such fear can be overblown in people’s minds. Often, there’s a mismatch between how people perceive their vulnerabilities and how others interpret them. We tend to think showing vulnerability makes us seem weak, inadequate, and flawed—a mess. But when others see our vulnerability, they might perceive something quite different, something alluring. A recent set of studies calls this phenomenon “the beautiful mess effect.” It suggests that everyone should be less afraid of opening up—at least in certain cases.

We are introducing this series – which we are calling ‘Face Plants’ – in that spirit. We hope that our community of colleagues and peers in the funding world can start to talk about what we are doing wrong: where we have made the wrong decisions, developed misguided program guidelines, fumbled conversations with trustees and grantees. We hope that by sharing these stories, we can build trust with each other – and have honest conversations that help us to do our jobs better.

To kick us off, here is just one of many face plants we have made in the past two years here at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. We hope you will join the conversation, and avoid those mud puddles where we have been hanging out – face first. We have plenty to share, and we welcome you to share where you have fallen short, and what you have learned. 

RSCF Face Plants: Coffee Dates

There is nothing like getting a job at a foundation to draw out old friends. When our President & CEO Phil and I each first updated our LinkedIn accounts to reflect our jobs here at Robert Sterling Clark, we started getting calls and emails from old friends, classmates, colleagues, and friends-of-friends who wanted to have coffee to talk about their projects. 

Initially, that felt like success – we were open and available, and people were taking advantage of it. By meeting with anyone who asked, and learning about their work, we thought we were creating open access to the Foundation. 

About a year in, we started looking at who we were meeting with – and while the people we knew from our existing networks were pouring in, we realized that people who we did not know already were at a disadvantage. When I got my 100th email from someone I had gone to college with, I started getting a little queasy. We explicitly did not want our grants only going to organizations led by people like us – second- or third-generation college educated, middle class, and in my case – white, and having a special coffee or connection with an old friend from a similar background advantaged them in a way that made us uncomfortable. 

So we are changing our message and process to say that we will not meet with prospective grantees until they submit something through our online portal. In order to submit they will have to make the determination that their work matches up with foundation priorities, and not just to rely on the strength of our personal connection. And as we make that change, we need to be more deliberate about pushing our message and materials out into a wider community. We will see if we end up drinking less coffee, or more coffee with different people. 

What do you think? Got any advice for us? Have you had a similar challenge in deciding with whom to meet? I’d love to hear from you. And if you’d like to write a Face Plant of your own, reach out. Write to me at lcowan@rsclark.org .

Lisa Pilar Cowan