Confessions of a Program Leader

By Jessamyn Lau

Earlier this month Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation hypothetically asked,what if foundation heads and program officers got fired for lack of impact? It was an interesting question to ask and a provocative way to think about keeping ourselves accountable to what should be our ultimate goal: impact. Though, obviously, easier said than done. But this got me thinking, what else should I get fired for? Or what else would/should our partners/grantees fire us or other funders for if they could…? Probably the litany of bad philanthropic practises out there.

Confession time… Over the past few months I made some classic mistakes: Over communicated enthusiasm, jumped the gun in suggesting a meeting, and confused someone over our investment criteria. This past week I made a different one: Under communicated on a no (almost unavoidably, because sometimes it’s a million tiny things rather than 3 distinct reasons you can put in a bulleted list).

I think with this latter mistake I perhaps compensated slightly by a offering a follow up call which they took me up on -but you’d probably have to ask them if that helped or not.

And on the other stuff… It is really hard not to communicate personal enthusiasm for an idea when you think it’s the best thing since sliced bread, but your not sure if it’s not a fit for the fdn. And really hard to communicate a ‘no’. And really hard to be crystal clear about a criteria when you’re actually still developing it.

These are not excuses to hide behind. I suppose my point is to simply say, it can be tricky. And we take those tricky things seriously and take time to try our best to get them as right as we know how. There are absolutely some things we can learn from advice/research/peers. Yet, with many of the really important lessons, I’m not sure how a young foundation can figure these things out unless we are trying, sometimes failing, and hopefully quickly iterating to find a good solution. The ideal being: ‘Only make new mistakes’.

We’re still learning. There are still a lot of perhaps unavoidable mistakes that are new for me/us. And so I’m still getting some things wrong. I apologise if you’re ever on the receiving end of a ‘learning moment’. Kevin Starr, please don’t fire me yet…